What is Malware?

What is Malware, Ransomware, or Computer Virus

Cyber security issues are in the news every week! The United States electoral process is scrambling to button up defenses against would-be hackers and malware. Private companies like Microsoft have set up their own defense task forces. Governments must allocate budgets to reinforcing IT systems and educating staff on safe procedures. Home technology user must defend their routers, laptops, and credit cards from hackers. Business travelers are especially susceptible to data breaches.

There are many flavors cyber security attacks to understand and defend against. A few types you may have already heard are email phishing scams, spear phishing attacks, social engineering, DDos attacks, data breaches, and malware.

Malware is any type of unwanted computer program, application, software, or hardware. The goal of malware is to cause harm to a system. Malware can infect laptops, smartphones, routers, or entire enterprise networks. Computer viruses are a common term for malware.

Often hackers use malware to take control or lock up a computer and hold control of it hostage waiting for some monetary compensation. Malware that holds out for money is known as ransomware.

In other cyber attacks, the malware creator’s goal may be to retrieve certain files or other information about the device owner. Personal data can then be used in other hack attempts to gain access to bank accounts. Once in financial account, hackers can transfer away money from the legitimate account towner.

How Does Malware Work?

Malware works its way into electronic devices and IT systems often by tricking an unsuspecting email recipient or website user into taking an action that transfers the malware onto their device. This can be accomplished through a phishing email that instructs the reader to reset a password or visit a spoof website for information. These email scams frequently inform readers that a password needs to be reset. The spoof website can look very official and may even look exactly like a website the victim visits frequently – like their banking app. Phishing emails and spear phishing are commonly used to launch a malware infection.

Malware may also be embedded on commercial hardware. A skilled hacker may manage to infect devices before they are delivered to an end user. Recently we learned that Russian malware has infected thousands of home and small office routers in the United States.

Why Must We Be Concerned About Malware?

A single infected device brought into a trusted network compromises the integrity of the entire network. Malware attacks are becoming almost daily events. The scopes of these cyber attacks are becoming larger as well. It’s not just one person losing a few kilobytes of data from their laptop, entire IT systems are taken offline. For example, the entire British healthcare system was taken down by WannaCry malware in May 2017. This could have been prevented by keeping computers patched. However, the machines were not kept up-to-date and the malware spread rapidly IT networks all over Europe.

How Can I Defend Against Malware?

The most important thing you can is keep your software and hardware up-to-date with the latest security patches and versions. When the British healthcare system was infected with WannaCry ransomware last year, it could have all been prevented by patching the machines with a Microsoft security update that was released two months earlier.

Using a good security hardware and software can also help. You may need to enlist the help of a professional to set up a firewall in your home or office. You can also use antivirus software to defend individual machines.

Don’t forget that phones are subject to malware too!

Michelle writes about cyber security as well as how to protect your data online. She has worked in internet technology for over 20 years Michelle earned a B.S. in Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She conducts workshops focused on web technologies and enjoys public speaking along with her connected rescue mutt.