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What are malware, trojans, viruses and worms? Computer infections explained

If you’re new to the world of computer security, you might find a lot of the terminology both obscure and alienating: malware, trojans, viruses and worms. What do they all mean?

Unfortunately, they all mean one thing: your computer isn’t completely safe. While knowing what each of these mean won’t offer you instant protection from their perils, it will help you better understand what you’re up against and how best to protect yourself.

So, just what are malware, trojans, viruses and worms?

Malware

Malware is actually a condensed, conjoined term, originating as “malicious software” – malware. It’s an umbrella term referring to any type of program designed to damage your computer: viruses, trojans and worms are all types of malware.

Many people use “malware” interchangeably with “virus”, although that’s technically incorrect. A virus is a distinct subsection of malware, just like worms and trojans.

Malware causes numerous problems, everything from stealing your personal details to wiping your hard drive. In short: malware is definitely bad.

Spyware

Malware’s nosier neighbour, spyware is not designed to cause harm to the user, but to track what they’re doing and serve up advertisements. Remember about ten years ago when computers were overrun with pop-up adverts? That was due to a huge boom in spyware production.

Viruses

Viruses are a type of malware that duplicates itself by inserting a copy of itself into another program, and then spreads to other computers. While some viruses are designed to cause as much damage as possible, you typically witness the side effects of viruses when your computer starts acting strange – just like if a human has an infection.

Viruses are usually designed to spread and steal data; other breakages are often just collateral damage.

Worms

Similar to viruses, worms also aim to replicate themselves and can cause the same type of damage. However, while a virus “infects” other programs to work and spread, worms operate indecently of other software. Worms either target vulnerabilities on computers to spread, or trick users into downloading and running them.

Trojans

Trojans are harmful pieces of software in disguise, much like the legendary Trojan Horse. Users are tricked into downloading and running it, which can cause an array of computer problems. Trojans don’t self-replicate like viruses or worms.

Now you know the basic definitions of malware and viruses, check out our other articles for ways to remove them!

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