Malware is malicious software — it is there in the name. Yet, in 2020, malware takes so many different forms. Yes, there are the typical worms and viruses that have been plaguing systems since the 1980s, but there are also new, incredibly sophisticated types of attacks that do horrible things to devices and their users. In a time when home users need advanced technology just to log onto the internet, many users might be wondering in earnest: What counts as malware, and what are the best ways to defend against it in an age when so many people rely so heavily on their home networks?
The Definition of Malware
In the simplest sense, malware is any software that is designed with the intention of causing some kind of harm to other device users. The definition of malware is deliberately vague to encompass a wide array of programs and applications as well as attack vectors, especially as the web evolves and cyber criminals develop new tools and techniques for attacking others. The key term in malware’s definition is “intention” — attackers are determined to damage or impair their victims in some way, and that is why their software is malicious.
Decades ago, malware was a rudimentary program spread via floppy disk and hardly capable of taking over a computer screen. The earliest malware was developed for little more than fun; hackers played around with malware merely for the challenge of creating a new computer program with interesting capabilities. Still, they had the intention of interfering with devices and users in some way, even if it was temporary or simplistic, so their actions count as malware.
Obviously, that has changed in recent years. These days, there is much more variation in malware types, which we will get into in-depth in the next section. More importantly, the intention behind malware is intensified, with the vast majority of attackers acting with powerfully negative motivations. Most often, modern cybercriminals leverage malware for financial gain, extorting victims for cash or cryptocurrency or else selling pilfered data for money. Other times, cybercriminals use malware to disrupt a company’s operations, wreaking havoc with the goal of crippling an organization to failure. In any case, the software used is devastating to victims, and that is what makes it malware.
Prevalent Types of Malware
Different types of malware exist to achieve different malicious goals. Here are a few of the most dominant types of malware currently floating around the web:
- Ransomware. Perhaps the most well-known malware, ransomware hides or encrypts a victim’s data and demands a large payment for the data’s safe return. Some ransomware masquerades as a legitimate program. Unfortunately, victims who pay rarely see their data again.
- Cryptojackers. As cryptocurrency rises in value, cybercriminals have devised malware that settles into the background of a victim’s device, using its processing power to mine cryptocurrency. This can cause the device to run slow and age prematurely, which is inconvenient and frustrating not to mention expensive.
- Botnets. A botnet is a network of devices that have all succumbed to the same malware and can all be controlled by a single bad actor. Often, botnets are used to launch much larger attacks against more secure networks, like large businesses, but in the meantime, devices within botnets are more susceptible to other malware.
- Adware. Though it isn’t often reported on, adware is by far the most plentiful malware in history. Adware seems relatively benign, merely installing unwanted browser extensions or increasing pop-up advertisements, but it often comes alongside other, more devastating malware.
While trends come and go in the cybercriminal community, few types of malware ever truly disappear. Even though high-tech ransomware and cryptojackers dominate the news, there still exists a wealth of old-school viruses, worms, Trojans and the like all over the web. It isn’t enough to be on the lookout for only a handful of malware types; instead, users need comprehensive malware protection.
Staying Safe from Malware
It is undeniably valuable to know where malware is most likely to be: within third-party downloads, attached to spam emails, on insecure websites and such. Users need to be able to identify phishing scams through email and on social media, which usually entails paying attention to spelling, grammar and the direction of links. In general, avoiding malware requires avoiding dangerous locations around the web.
However, it is much easier to stay safe from malware when devices are protected with complete antivirus software. While users can and should continue to employ their knowledge of malware to evade it, antivirus tools are smarter at identifying malware and stronger at resisting it, almost regardless of its type or intentions. Paid antivirus solutions come in a number of tiers and complexities to ensure that every home user has access to effective protection from malware.
Malware is everywhere, and those who refuse to learn about malware are destined to become victims again and again. By staying up to date with regards to what types of malware are surging and how best to stay safe, users can avoid suffering due to malicious software.