What Is a Virus?

Home & Family, Technology
on March 9, 2012

No matter how you slice it, a virus is a bad thing. Computer viruses have been around about as long as computers have been commonplace in the average home. It is important to understand what a virus is in order to keep your computer and your data safe from contaminants.

What is a virus exactly? A computer virus is a program that is secretly installed on a computer and runs hidden within another program or file. The virus produces multiples of itself, like the viruses that infect humans. Once the replication occurs, copies of the virus will be found in many folders, programs and files within the computer. The usual goal of the virus is to destroy data. The computer virus is one type of malware or malicious software that can disrupt operation, access or steal data; however, worms, Trojans, spyware and bots, to name a few, are also considered malware. A computer virus must have the ability to replicate itself to be considered a true virus.

What are the most common types of malware? There are a few separate types of computer viruses, according to Cisco — worms, Trojan horses and macro viruses.

  • Worms — Worms interfere with the ability to use the computer it infects. They replicate copies of themselves the same way a virus functions. Worms are not attached to other computer entities but stand alone.
  • Viruses — Viruses attach themselves to documents (or data files) or insert themselves into a program. These are the most prevalent types of computer viruses. Viruses spread when the infected software or document is shared as in an email, disk or file sharing and within a network.
  • Trojan horses — This is a malicious program that operates invisibly to perform an action that the user did not initiate. It can spread to other programs, making additional copies of itself.
  • Bots — This is an automated process that interacts with other network services, usually to obtain information, such as instant messaging or internal relay chat. Bots can also interact with websites and log keystrokes for passwords, obtain financial data, attack the DoS and flood you with spam.

How can you prevent computer viruses? According to Indiana University Information Technology Services, following best practice for computer security can reduce the risk of becoming infected by a computer virus. Safety tips include:

  • Use security software. It protects your computer from viruses and spyware. It will run scans for viruses and spyware and remove them. Make sure you keep the software up to date, as there are always new viruses being unleashed.
  • Practice the principal of least privilege. For shared computers, administrative rights should only belong to the main user. When you visit sites on the Internet with the computer privilege and security settings at the administrator’s level, you’re vulnerable to picking up a virus that can reformat your hard drive, delete files or create a new user account with admin rights.
  • Keep all software and updates current. A little computer maintenance goes a long way. Always make time to verify that you are running on current versions and have installed all service packs and patches. Some computers can be set to run these updates automatically.

What to do if you think your computer is infected? According to Huffington Post’s Switched website, there are several steps you can take immediately.

  • Disconnect from the home network. That entails disabling the network discovery function, file sharing and printer sharing. It will prevent other network devices from being infected.
  • Enable firewall to lock Internet traffic. If you do not have a dedicated firewall program, turn off your network connections or unplug the Ethernet cable from the back of your computer. Be sure to update anti-virus software before you pull the plug.
  • Update the operating system. Running updates on the OS may close any security breaches and keep the virus at bay.
  • Run your updated anti-virus software. Do a full system scan to clean out all of the infection.
  • Reinstall the OS. If all else fails, the task of reinstalling the operating system with original installation discs is necessary. You might lose some files during the procedure, but it is the only way to kill the bug. (Avoid data loss by protecting it with regular backups.)