Do you REALLY need to know the difference between malware types?

Explaining Malware Types is Hard To Do

One of the stranger perils of being a technical writer involves being ambushed at odd moments by people demanding on-the-spot explanations of complex technical concepts.  I was out on the town one night and somehow found myself having to explain to a not-too-tech-savvy friend how to differentiate between a virus, a trojan and a worm.

After patiently listening to a lengthy, rambling answer, my friend thought it over for a minute and then asked, “So, why should I care? Why is this important to me? Do I really need to know the difference between different types of malwares?

My automatic reaction was to say, “Of course you need to!” – but to my surprise,  I couldn’t coherently express why I felt that way (though to be fair,  I was having trouble thinking clearly about anything that night).

Thinking it over in the sober light of day,  I realized that he’d actually asked a pretty good question. For most computer users, the difference between malware types is academic and irrelevant – at least,  right up until their computer gets infected. If everything’s working just fine, why in the world should they be able to distinguish between an exploit and a backdoor?

A Technical Person’s Answer

To get a expert’s opinion on this,  I relayed my friend’s question to an Analyst in our Response Lab. His reply was (and I’m paraphrasing here):

“Yes,  so that if anything happens, you’d know how the computer got infected, how to deal with the infection, and how to prevent it from spreading.”

Now, that’s the condensed version of a technical person’s answer. The real answer was actually a long, in-depth and detailed explanation covering how certain malware types had specific behaviors and particular vectors for distribution, as well as recommendations for dealing with particular types of infection.

And that there was the problem in a nutshell – it’s a lot of information to absorb. It was a thorough answer, but not an easy one to communicate to people with little interest in technicalities.  Some parts of the explanation also assumed more computer knowledge than most users would probably have or want.

Having said that, I thought the condensed version of our Analyst’s answer seemed like a helpful, ‘user-friendly’ answer. It summarizes all the main points effectively, puts it in a context most users would understand  and – this is important – it isn’t long-winded. I’ll come back to this again a little later.

Why A User Doesn’t Need To Know Malware Types

Trying to find a simple, all-encompassing answer to my friend’s question made me wonder if he really had a point and that users didn’t really need to know something as technical as malware types. So I decided to turn the question around and ask:

“Are there any cases in which ‘the average user’ doesn’t need to know the difference between malware types?”

The following four scenarios were the only ones I could think of where knowing malware types wouldn’t be helpful (if you can think of others, feel free to leave a comment). Of course,  I included some reasons why I think knowing malware types would be helpful even in these situations.

  1. I don’t do anything that might harm my computer.

    If you can honestly claim this, you’re probably what I’d call an Exemplary User: someone who diligently updates the operating system and programs, never installs programs or uses removable media without thoroughly vetting it first, doesn’t download from untrusted sources and basically, just does computer security right.

    An Exemplary User can laugh with scorn at looming malware outbreaks.  If this describes you, great! You can stop reading now. (Heck, you probably know the malware types already, anyway).

    Since the vast majority of users will never qualify for Exemplary Userhood however (myself included), the second best scenario is:

  2. MY computer can’t be infected.

    No, I’m not starting a PC versus Mac debate. What I mean is that even if malware does get onto your computer, it needs to find a suitable environment before it can have an effect. A Linux virus that somehow manages to get onto a Windows machine usually can’t do anything except blush sheepishly. Ditto for a backdoor that uses HTTP to connect to a remote site but ends up on a standalone computer without Internet acess.

    If your computer happens to be set up so that the majority of malware doesn’t target it or affect it (now you can start the PC/Mac debate), then our query becomes moot. Again, congratulations!

    Of course, most people have very little choice in the kind of operating system or programs they have on their computer, particularly business users. Even home users usually have to consider familiarity and affordability over specifically tailoring their computer to be malware resistant. To fix that, most users use antivirus protection. Which leads to reason 3:

  3. Why worry? My antivirus will remove it.

    Actually, since I work for a computer security company, I’d reeeaaally like it if more people could claim this. And hey – shameless plug – our Internet Security is doing pretty well in independent tests!

    Unfortunately, this solution isn’t 100% bulletproof, especially if you’re not an Exemplary User or are just plain unlucky.  Sometimes, the antivirus doesn’t catch the malware. Or it makes an error and the wrong file get fingered, causing all sorts of mayhem. Worse still, the antivirus turns out to be rogueware.

    In other words, the program you’re depending on to sort out all the problems….doesn’t. What then? Ah, then we move on to reason 4:

  4. Not my department. (IT/Tech Support/the computer guy) will just clean out any infection for me.

    OK, so the person fixing an infected computer should be the one with the technical knowledge, true. That person may not be the user, true. If you have someone dependable, willing and trustworthy, who can fix anything that goes wrong…can I have their number? Such a person is a godsend. Treasure him/her.

    Still, even if you’re that lucky, it’s often a great help to the actual technician if the user can pinpoint the probable cause. Knowing what type of dastardly program is screwing around with the computer gives the technician a good place to start investigating, and maybe also some idea of how to fix it.

    Or, to use an analogy, it’s the difference between driving to a workshop and telling the mechanic, “My car’s making a funny sound”, and saying, “The fan belt’s busted.”‘

And the Conclusion Is…

If you’re not in one of the 4 ‘Ideal Situations’ listed above, then it would probably be helpful for you to know the different kinds of malicious programs that can damage your computer, because…well, refer to condensed Analyst’s answer above.

Realistically though, learning about malware types, even superficially, requires investing time and energy that not every user can spare – which is why technical writers (ahem) have to find ways of communicating these concepts in ways that are interesting and easily accessible for everyone. Which brings us back to the condensed Analyst’s answer. It’s short, to the point and gives just enough information without being overwhelming. And if more information is asked for, well that’s the time to start going in-depth.

Personally, I like it – but since my part of my work deals with malware types anyway, I freely admit to being biased about this. So really, the best people to evaluate how useful that answer is – You, dear reader. So how about it? Do you think the condensed Analyst’s answer is a helpful, informative reply?


Oh and since we’re on the topic, here are the Types F-Secure uses to classify the samples – the good, the bad and the merely suspicious. You can also find plenty of other sites with excellent information on this topic – for example, has great articles explaining how trojans, viruses and worms work.

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brain floppy, scanning engines, malware scanning

5 Ways We Stop Cyber Attacks In Their Tracks

See that floppy disc? That's how F-Secure Labs used to get malware to analyze. Nowadays, of course, it's much different, Andy Patel from the Labs explained in a recent post, "What's The Deal with Scanning Engines?" In just a few hundred words, Andy lays out what makes modern protection so different from the anti-virus that you remember from the 80s, 90s or even the early 00s. And it's not just that floppy disks the Labs once analyzed have been replaced by almost any sort of digital input, down to a piece of memory or a network stream. The whole post is worth checking out if you're interested in how relentless modern internet security must be to keep up with the panoply of online threats we face. But here's a quick look at five of the key components of endpoint protection that work in tandem to stop attacks in their tracks, as described by Andy: Scanning engines. Today’s detections are really just complex computer programs, designed to perform intricate sample analysis directly on the client. Modern detections are designed to catch thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of samples. URL blocking. Preventing a user from being exposed to a site hosting an exploit kit or other malicious content negates the need for any further protection measures. We do this largely via URL and IP reputation cloud queries. Spam blocking and email filtering also happen here. Exploit detection. If a user does manage to visit a site hosting an exploit kit, and that user is running vulnerable software, any attempt to exploit that vulnerable software will be blocked by our behavioral monitoring engine. Network and on-access scanning. If a user receives a malicious file via email or download, it will be scanned on the network or when it is written to disk. If the file is found to be malicious, it will be removed from the user’s system. Behavioral blocking. Assuming no file-based detection existed for the object, the user may then go on to open or execute the document, script, or program. At this point, malicious behavior will be blocked by our behavioral engine and again, the file will be removed. The fact is, a majority of malware delivery mechanisms are easily blocked behaviorally. In most cases, when we find new threats, we also discover that we had, in the distant past, already added logic addressing the mechanisms it uses.If you're interested in knowing more about behavioral engines, check out this post in which Andy makes then easy to understand by comparing the technology to securing an office building. So you must be wondering, does this all work? Is it enough? Well, our experts and our computers are always learning. But in all the tests this year run by independent analysts AV-Comparatives, we’ve blocked 100% of the real-world threats thrown at us. Cheers, Jason  

May 24, 2016
Customer Day F-Secure

Customer Day at F-Secure: Technology Enables, Feelings Live

The Internet is pretty cool. You can use it to learn about things happening all over the world. You can start your own blog or social media account to share your views and speak up about the things you care about. You can stay in touch with people that live far away. It’s really all about connecting people, and it’s changed how people live their lives. The odd thing about all this connecting is that it's surprisingly easy to become disconnected from actual people. Spending time in front of a computer screen, especially when working in roles that involve lots of engineering or programming, can put people out of the picture. All too often, things get reduced to bits and pieces of information. People are what’s important to companies. Not just employees, but all the people involved with a business. And many companies say that the customer is #1, but they’ll have employees who never interact with the people they’re serving. So in this era of hyper connectivity, it’s easy for companies and employees to lose touch with the people that are actually paying their salaries. So Donal Crotty, F-Secure’s Director of Customer Advocacy, started a new tradition in 2015 to celebrate how we feel about customers, give them an opportunity to candidly share their views on the company with the Fellows that work here, and learn more about the company and the people that help make it a success. It’s called Customer Day. “Not everyone at F-Secure has the pleasure of actually meeting the people they’re trying to help,” says Donal. “It’s just the nature of some jobs. But it’s a real shame, because all the metrics and analytical tools companies use to gauge how happy or unhappy customers actually are simply aren’t enough. Numbers and data are no replacement for people, and that’s what Customer Day is for.” So today is the 2nd annual Customer Day at F-Secure (#fscustomerday16 on Twitter). And here at our Helsinki headquarters, as well as several of our regional offices around the world, Fellows and customers are coming together to connect with each other and learn more about the people and products. And have a bit of fun too. “IT companies will often say that they’re about people and not technology. But I’m not sure how many of them actually make the effort to put the people that build products and provide behind the scenes services in front of customers” says Donal. “We, as in people in companies, talk about customer experience, but it takes something more than just talking about it to make it meaningful. I like to think of it as a type of feeling. Our technology enables, but the feeling we give to customers is what we want them to live with.” Images provided by Bret Pulkka-Stone.

May 13, 2016

Why F-Secure’s the 4th Most Attractive Employer for IT Students

IT companies used to have a pretty bad image. It’s not that they’re bad companies giving people bad jobs. They just never screamed “job satisfaction” to the general public. The stereotype of IT companies as inhuman, mundane places to work became so well-known that a hilarious comedy from the 90’s called Office Space satirized the idea. The movie told the story of a disgruntled programmer who rebelled against the soulless, life-sucking office environment of the IT company he worked for in order to find happiness. The movie and the stereotype are a bit old now. But I think it’s still safe to assume that the environment represented in Office Space, and the lifestyles of the people who work there, is something everyone would like to avoid. And according to Universum – a research firm that specialized in employer branding – F-Secure is ahead of the game in offering people a place where they’d actually LIKE to work. At least according to IT students. F-Secure was ranked as the 4th most attractive employer amongst Finnish IT students in Universum’s 2016 Most Attractive Employers ranking (up from 5th in last year’s rankings), beat out only by Google, Microsoft, and Finnish game company Supercell. So what is it that makes F-Secure such an appealing employer? Well, here’s a few things we’re doing that separates us from the kind of company shown in Office Space. We don't box people into cubicles People at F-Secure aren’t expected to isolate themselves from other Fellows and sit by themselves in cubicles. Our Fellows work together in whatever way makes them feel comfortable. In fact, as a global company with offices and people working all over the world, we often think outside the box and take whatever approach lets people work together to get the best results. We don’t stop at securing computers – we secure society This sentiment, recently expressed by F-Secure Chief Research Officer Mikko Hypponen, highlights the importance of what we do at F-Secure. We deal with real adversaries and security threats, whether that’s an advanced persistent threat group working on behalf of a government, or a gang of online extortionists looking to spread ransomware or steal data to blackmail people. Having active adversaries to work against presents us with a constantly evolving set of threats to people and companies. The opportunity to combat those threats makes our days challenging, but exciting and fulfilling. We know how to chill out Cyber security is a tough business. As mentioned above, we deal with real adversaries and threats. When we’re doing our jobs, we’re focused 100% on winning. But we also understand it’s important to be able to unwind, so Fellows are encouraged to enjoy themselves at work. Our HQ has things like a sauna, a gym, games, and other things for people to enjoy when they need to step out of the fight for a few minutes. With great power comes great responsibility, but everyone needs some time to chill out (even if it’s in a scorching hot sauna). So F-Secure has a lot going for it, and based on Universum’s rankings, it looks like that’s paying off. But why don’t you tell us what’s most important to you in a workplace. Finnish IT students already think F-Secure would be a great place to work, but we’re always ready to do more. And why not check out our current openings to see if there’s a place that’s right for you. [polldaddy poll=9407357] Image: A team of Aalto University students that won an award for a software project sponsored by F-Secure. Read more here.

May 4, 2016