What is Malware? Definition, Purpose & Common Protections
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What is Malware? Definition, Purpose & Common Protections
Anyone who has used a computer for any significant length of time has probably at least heard of malware. Short for “malicious software,” malware is any piece of computer software designed to disrupt the regular function of a network or device, to gain unauthorized access to certain hardware or systems, or to send user data to others without that user’s consent. Malware has been present in the digital space since the 1980s, with early prank malware like the Morris Worm or the (c)Brain. However, malware is not quite as amusing in a modern context. From ransomwareattacks locking businesses out of their data until they pay potentially millions of dollars to spyware tracking users’ every move through their infected device, the effects of malware can be devastating.
Today, malware is a common threat to the devices and data of anyone who uses the Internet. Since 2008, antivirus and cybersecurity software testers AV-TEST have kept track of the number of newly-developed malware worldwide, totaling at nearly 1 billion as of September 2022. An August 2022 Statista report counted 2.8 billion malware attacks worldwide in the first half of 2022 alone.
With so many attacks and unique types of malware out there, it’s important to have some idea of how malware works, how it can infect your devices, and what to do if you find yourself infected with it.
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Malware’s functions vary wildly depending on what type of malware you’re dealing with. Broadly, malware will somehow be injected into a device or network and, if it can gain access to the files or systems it needs to, it will begin its work.
For example, once it infects your device, a keylogger will start tracking every keystroke you make and sending a log of those keystrokes to the hacker, allowing them to reconstruct any sensitive information you might have entered after infection, such as your PIN, password, or social security number.
To better understand how malware works, however, let’s look at some common types of malware and see how they function and what parts of a device or network they usually affect. After that, we’ll offer some techniques and tips to help you prevent malware infection but also what to do if you end up infected.
Easily one of the most frustrating types of malware, adware is software designed to harass users with a torrent of unwanted or malicious ads. Adware is often smuggled onto a device, either by users who don’t know what they’re downloading or by hiding it in an otherwise innocuous piece of software like a search engine toolbar plugin for your browser.
This isn’t quite the same as a legitimate piece of software, such as a mobile game from a reputable developer, coming packed with online ads. Usually, those ads will be screened by the developer or whoever published the software online and don’t do anything unusual beyond wasting your time. Adware advertisements might appear in places where ads typically don’t show up; might be completely unrelated to the software or website you’re using, including the depiction of explicit material; and might even begin performing a number of unwanted tasks on your device.
These unwanted tasks can include:
Some signs of adware infection include:
One of the most dangerous kinds of malware for businesses, ransomware can slip into a network or device and encrypt sensitive files or lock down the entire device unless the victims pay the hacker a usually-sizable fee to unlock it – and even then, decryption fails most of the time. Modern ransomwarehackers often double or triple up on the extortion by demanding additional fees to ensure that sensitive files are not leaked to the public. Ransomware is one of the most virulent forms of malware on the modern Internet. A report from IBM claims that 21% of all cyber attacks the company remediated in 2021 were ransomware, making it the most common type of attack in the report. The method of infection can vary from attack to attack and can include social engineering strategies, such as phishing and email spoofing, or a fraudulent website masquerading as legitimate, among others.
Once a system is infected, ransomwareattacks usually come in 3 stages:
Rootkits are essentially software toolboxes which allow hackers to infiltrate a device’s systems and gain remote control of it. This makes them incredibly difficult to detect and remove, though there are tools like rootkit scanners which can help.
Typically, attackers will use rootkits to spy on users and launch cyber assaults, such as a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack, but the aforementioned software toolbox contains a variety of malicious implements. This can include programs with which the hacker can disable security software, install keyloggers, or steal sensitive information like passwords or credit card details.
There are a few viable ways to install a rootkit, but they will typically target some weakness in either an application installed on the target device or the target device’s operating system (OS). There are also several different types of rootkits to be aware of:
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