What Is Malware and Why Should I Worry About It?

Reid Cushman, PhD
Published: Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Viruses and other malicious software can quickly and easily ruin a computer’s program and files. What should you know about malware, what can you do to protect your computer, and what should you do if your computer becomes infected?

Healthcare providers spend their professional lives fighting attacks on the human body. Do they need to worry about attacks on the computers they use in day-to-day practice? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. The dangers to computers today are greater than ever.

The good news is that protective technologies provide ever-better methods for safeguarding computer systems. Those tools are complex, and applying them appropriately as part of an overall security strategy requires some technical expertise. Although large groups and institutions have professional IT staffs to worry about all this, physicians in small groups or solo practice have to be more self-reliant.

The malware problem really is worse than ever

The threat from malicious software continues to grow at an explosive rate. The number of new viruses, worms, and other types of “malware” detected in 2007 was double that for 2006; new variations detected in 2008 were triple the 2007 numbers. Indeed, there were more malware variations discovered in 2008 than in all the previous years for which records are available combined.

Do lots of variations translate into lots of actual threats? Indeed, yes, and the threat is nearer than you probably think. You may have heard that countries like Russia and China were What Is Malware and Viruses and other malicious software can quickly and the sources of most of the Internet’s plagues. Those may be among the more popular points of origin, but more malware is actually hosted on American websites, and more spam is relayed from American computers, than in any other country.

This doesn’t mean the US is full of Internet criminals. It means it’s full of computers that have been infected and hijacked by Internet criminals to do their nefarious work. It’s estimated that 10-15% of all computers worldwide are infected.

What is malware, and how do infections occur?

Malware is an umbrella term for destructive entities, such as viruses, worms, Trojan horses, and spyware. The common factor is that these digital invaders alter the way a computer operates, without the permission or knowledge of the user.

In a simpler time, the primary way a computer got infected with malware was by physical contact—sharing files on portable storage media like floppy disks. Today, malware more commonly arrives in e-mail messages, either in an infected file attached to the e-mail or via an enticing Web link within the message.

Malware can also be embedded in a downloaded file (eg, an image or music file from a peer-to-peer service). Or it can enter through an open network connection, without any inadvertent abetting action by a human user, if a computer does not have appropriate security protections.

What are the symptoms of infection?

Some malware inflicts damage directly on the computer that has become its host, by altering data files or programs. Particularly vicious malware can destroy the contents of a computer’s hard disk entirely, or other wise render the system unusable.

Other varieties commandeer the infected system to use for reproduction. Destructive possibilities include using the compromised system as a “bot”— also sometimes called a “zombie host”—with the collection of such infected systems forming a massive “botnet” of infected computers. The infected bot systems can be used for launches of denial-of-service attacks (flooding a target website with requests) or for mass export of questionable materials (such as pornography or spam).

In addition to wreaking obvious havoc with files and programs, malware may announce its presence by displaying text, graphics, or audio (some creators like to brag). Alternatively, malware may operate entirely in silence unless/until discovered or an internal “sunset” clock shuts it down. Lack of obvious symptoms is no guarantee of a clean bill of health.

Source: www.f-secure.com/en_EMEA/security/security-lab/latest-threats/security-threat-summaries/2008-4.html

Can protective software prevent malware infection?

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