Did your mom ever tell you not to sleep with the window open or you’d catch a cold? Turns out that’s a myth. Thank goodness, because I love the sleep I get with fresh air coming in at night and, as I’m sure you know, there’s no cure for a cold.
The common cold isn’t the only bug that’s hard to shake, if you know what I mean….Computer viruses! Get it? The cold is a virus and computers also get viruses? This is a cybersecurity blog.
What is Malware?
In short, malware is a huge bummer an infection in technology. There’s a variety of different types of malware that serve specific purposes, but generally, it spies, steals, or destroys. Desktops, laptops, mobile phones, tablets, smart fridges, internet-connected air conditioners - basically any device can be infected with malware.
Viruses & Worms
When you think of computer infections, you probably think of viruses. We’d applaud the virus for being so iconic, but you know...it’s evil.
Viruses attach themselves to a host - a program, file, or folder - and when that host is opened by a user, the virus is able to begin replicating itself. Basically, it injects its DNA into other programs, files, or folders across your computer or device. Viruses run code that changes the way your computer functions.
Worms, on the other hand, don’t need a host. They replicate without needing to be activated by the user and can spread across entire networks, taking advantage of security cracks such as operating systems that haven’t been updated and expired antivirus software.
Trojans get their name from the well-known myth of the trojan horse. This malware disguises itself as legitimate software. When you install the program you actually want, the trojan that’s lying in wait is installed as well. There are different types of trojans - such as remote access trojans that give cybercriminals, well, remote access to your computer. This is a popular type of malware for performing DoS (Denial of Service) attacks, which can make an entire network unusable.
Would you consider that video of your kid’s first steps priceless? Cybercriminals would too - which means they get to name whatever price they want. Ransomware will lock your computer files and demand payment, usually in the form of a cryptocurrency such as bitcoin, to unlock them. Don’t want to pay up? Make sure you have a backup of anything important to you, or it may be gone forever.
Unfortunately for everyone who isn’t a cybercriminal, ransomware is currently on the rise. Schools, hospitals, police departments - even entire cities have been locked down by ransomware. In 2019, over 200,000 organizations in the United States fell victim to ransomware - including more than 70 state and local governments, such as the New Orleans city government. According to a survey by cybersecurity company Sophos, approximately half of all businesses were hit with ransomware in 2020. Big yikes!
What’s the first adjective that you think of when you think of ads? Probably something like disruptive or annoying, right? What if I told you ads can also be dangerous? Adware spams you with advertisements, some of which may link to malicious websites - this includes pop-ups as well as ads embedded on web pages where they shouldn’t be. Adware can slow down your computer and often comes bundled with spyware.
Spyware does exactly what it sounds like it does...spies on you. This type of malware monitors and records your online activity, collects your data, and steals your personal information. Spyware often runs in the background of free software, so you likely won’t even notice it’s there. Credit card fraud and identity theft are huge risks with spyware.
Cryptojackers use your computer to mine for bitcoin for a cybercriminal. Just like real mining is to people, mining for Bitcoin is totally exhausting to the computer. I mean, I assume real mining is exhausting...I’ve never mined before, but it looks pretty physically taxing. The point is, cryptojackers exhaust your computer, leading to shortened battery life, raised electricity bills, and general sluggishness.
Where does Malware Come from?
An apple a day keeps the doctor away - but what keeps the cybercriminal away? The two most important things you can do to protect the health of your devices are to stay updated and to be smart about the links, attachments, and downloads you interact with online.
We’re all guilty of clicking “update later” when our computer or antivirus prompts us to restart our computer, but this is really dangerous. Updates are continuously released to teach our computers and devices how to protect themselves from newly discovered security threats, like hot new strains of malware. Retire that “update later” button; update now to give your computer’s immune system a boost. Going forward, be sure to restart your computer at least once a week to ensure that regular updates are implemented in a timely fashion.
Stay skeptical online (and stay out of internet back alleys). Don’t click links or download attachments sent to you by sources you don’t know or don’t trust. Only download software from trusted, first-party platforms - this includes apps for your mobile devices; contrary to popular belief, they are not immune to becoming infected.
What are the Warning Signs?
As we’ve seen, there’s a wide variety of malware - which means there’s also a pretty wide variety of symptoms, as different types of malware will have different effects on your computer.
Some malware will make its existence known pretty obviously, such as ransomware and adware. An ad for artisan, uniquely-flavored pickles on a government website? Yeah, I don’t think so. Most types of malware, however, prefer to remain incognito. Subtler symptoms include:
- Your computer or device running slower than normal
- Your browser redirecting you to websites you didn’t want to visit
- Messages from a fake antivirus (or an antivirus you never installed)
- Settings and/or system tools, like the task manager, being disabled
- Shortened battery life or your computer fun working harder than normal
- Unexplained changes to your computer or browser settings
Even if you’re super vigilant about monitoring changes in your computer or device, you might not catch malware that’s snuck its way in; there are many silent killers. The best way to be sure your computer is healthy is to set your antivirus to automatically run a diagnostic check a couple of times a week.
Unfortunately, we all get sick sometimes. If you do catch a bad case of malware, don’t panic - contact your doctor the security team, and they’ll help you nurse your device back to health.
Using any piece of technology is, in a lot of ways, kind of like having a dog (stay with me here). Your dog needs plenty of exercise to keep his muscles strong; your computer needs regular updates to keep its malware defenses strong. Your dog needs yearly exams to ensure he doesn’t have any health problems you weren’t able to notice; your computer needs regular diagnostic scans to ensure it doesn’t have any malware that was invisible to you. You won’t let your dog eat garbage because he might get sick; you don’t click suspicious links or download software from internet back alleys because your computer might get sick!
You have to treat both with care to ensure they stay healthy and happy. Your computer needs your support to maintain a healthy immune system; you are your computer’s best defense against malware. Be safe and stay well! You got this.