This is the second posting in a three-part series covering common threats a user may encounter.
This series serves as a rough and ready guide, highlighting key features and trends relevant to most users.
Viruses have always loomed large in users’ minds as the poster child of malicious programs – heck, we even call it the anti-virus industry. In the last 10 years or so however, the number of virus infections has nosedived; our Labs, which once dealt with viruses routinely, now sees a proper virus infection about once or twice a month. Today when people talk of ‘viruses’, more often than not what they’re describing is technically a trojan or a worm, and they’re using the term in a general, ‘any malware will do’ kind of way.
That’s not to say viruses are extinct; we still receive a small, if persistent, number of queries about viruses. This may be because many businesses, households and users (both in developed countries and in recently connected developing ones) still use old, out-dated, unpatched machines or programs, or haven’t yet developed a security-conscious habits.
Whatever the case, virus infections will probably still cling on to life for a weary day after, so let’s take a look at them.
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary’s bare-bones definition of a computer virus touches on important elements most users should know, so I’ll just elaborate a bit more on some key concepts:
Last week I compared a virus to a parasite, because not only does it ‘hide’ in another program, but also depends on its host to function. For the virus to run, the unsuspecting user must actively launch the infected program, which in turn launches the virus.
For this reason, virus writers usually create viruses that infect executable files (especially popular programs such as word processors or media files), which have a higher chance of being run; programs with files that get passed around a lot are extra attractive, since they can affect even more potential victims.
A good example is the Microsoft Office suite which, with their huge community of business and personal users, used to be a popular target for macro viruses. We still see queries related to this virus type, though thankfully far less than previously.
If you think of the common cold virus spreading from one person to another, you’ll have a pretty good idea of why this behavior can be so damaging. When a infected file is executed, it searches for and infects new files; if the newly infected files are launched, they find and infect new files in turn, like some evil Multi-Level Marketing operation. At worst, this pattern can lead to every targeted file on the system being infected.
The damage a virus can do by replicating and infecting new files is bad enough; its payload, a completely separate set of nasty actions, can be worse. The range of actions a virus can take is huge – connecting to a remote site, changing the desktop wallpaper, displaying silly notification messages, deleting data files…it really just depends on the virus author’s imagination and programming skills.
If you’re lucky, they’re not that good and you get failed viruses like Virus:W32/Stardust; if they’re good, then you get really nasty beasts like Virus:W32/Virut or Virus:W32/Sality.AA (one of the few viruses we still find regularly active).
With thousands of unique viruses out in the wild, antivirus companies find it necessary to divide them into sub-types. Unlike trojans though, viruses don’t fall into neat categories reflecting their actions; instead, they naturally fall into groupings based on technical differences in the way they infect a file – which is basically gobbledeegook to a user not interested in detailed analysis.
Gnerally, viruses can be divided into two groups – system infectors and file infectors. The majority of viruses are the latter and infect programs or data files. System infectors on the other hand write their malicious code to specific, critical sections of the hard disk containing the operating system, so that while the OS is running its normal routines, it’s also unintentionally executing the virus code.
Fortunately, for most users a virus’s classification is largely academic. For better or for worse, the sheer variety of possible effects each unique virus can have on a file or system makes it more practical to take each virus on a case by case basis.
So let’s go back to the original question that sparked off this series: do you really need to know if it’s a virus – as opposed to, say, a trojan or worm – infecting your computer?
Well, it helps to know because the two malware types tend affect your data and computer in different ways. As a (very) general rule, trojan infections is more about data theft and loss of control over the computer; virus infections tend to result in software disruptions or damage.
Trojans may copy and steal your data, but they don’t usually destroy the data file itself; they may stop programs from running but they don’t destroy the program. A virus on the other hand, insert its own code into a program or data file, and depending on how it does so, may either leave the host completely unharmed and functional, slightly disrupted, or completely non-functional.
Another difference between trojans and viruses that really affects the user involves disinfection. For one thing, a trojan is usually a single, discrete program – getting rid of it tends to be fairly simple, a matter of removing the malicious file and its residuals (registry keys, processes, icons, etc). Removing the trojan also generally doesn’t affect the integrity of other files on the computer.
Viruses are far more nebulous by design – they can be present in multiple files, in different locations. Identifying a virus-infected file may require scanning the entire computer to be sure every affected file is caught. Removing malicious code from an infected file or – if it can’t be saved, deleting the infected file entirely – can also be problematic if the damaged data is important or the program is a critical system component.
And this doesn’t even take into account the virus’s payload, which can produce a whole other set of worries.
Still, there is a ray of hope. If current malware trends persist, we may soon see adware or backdoors promoted to being the newest member of The Big Three, and viruses – as a distinct malware type – can finally be relegated to joining 3½” floppy disks in Computer Hell.
In the meantime, here’s some links to other, more in-depth resources on viruses:
Or partially available on Google Books:
Coming soon – Worms!
What's easier than typing, clicking or even swiping left? For most of us, speaking. Until we can get actual USB ports in our brain, our mouths may be the quickest way to make our our desires known to our devices. And as it Internet of Things develops, we're going to be doing more and more talking to machines, including our thermostat, light bulbs and possibly even our drones. Fans of Siri and the Amazon Echo are already familiar with the benefits of a conversational interface. But, as with any new technology that gains widespread adoption, privacy and security concerns are inevitable. We spoke to F-Secure's Cyber Gandalf Andy Patel about what users of voice-activated technology should know as they make the leap into this newer realm of connectivity that has long been imagined by science fiction visionaries from Philip K. Dick to Star Trek's Gene Roddenberry. So are these voice-activated devices listening all the time? Yes. In order for a device to react to a voice command without the user pressing a button to activate the feature, the device must listen all the time. How could this be used against us? If a device streams voice data to a server for processing, a few privacy and security implications arise. If the data is being streamed in an insecure way, it can be intercepted by a third party. If the speech data is stored insecurely, it can become compromised in the case of a data breach. It can also potentially sold to a third party. Speech is processed into text. That text might be stored, it might be associated with its source, and it could also be leaked. When the speech processing service returns data to the device that requested the processing, it could also be intercepted. Are the any real privacy concerns for owners of voice-activated devices? Some companies outsource their speech recognition services and cannot properly account for the processes and collection methods used by those companies. Along those lines, just last year, Samsung TV voice recognition made the news for recording owners' chatter. Voice command systems can also be maliciously hijacked. Last year, a group of French researchers demoed a method for remotely controlling Siri from a distance, using sounds that triggered Siri’s voice control, but that couldn’t be recognized by a human. So what will voice-activated technology look like in five or ten years? Big names are interested in voice control because they attach it to AI and machine learning systems -- which are, in turn, fed by the Big Data they’ve collected -- for an interactive experience. The end goal would be a scenario where you could ask your computer to perform arbitrary tasks in the same manner as on Star Trek.
We used to search holiday magazines to find the hotel that offered the biggest pool and then triple check that the hotel has air conditioning. If we were really picky, we wouldn’t look twice at a hotel that didn’t offer cable TV. Now we see the perfect summer holiday in a different light. We can’t possibly leave our smartphones, tablets and laptops behind. A survey by Energy Company E.ON revealed that the most important feature hotels must have to even be considered is free Wi-Fi. Why do we find it so difficult to disconnect ourselves from the digital world? Even when we’re sitting in the beautiful sunshine, sipping on cocktails and splashing in the sea? Partly our digital dependence is practical, of course. The web helps us navigate around our holiday destinations finding the best attractions, the coolest bars and most remote beauty spots. But if we’re honest, many of us would admit that we’re so digitally connected because we don’t want to miss anything happening on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and all the other social apps filling our electronic wonders. We continue to check in, trying to make our friends jealous by posting the latest update about our perfect holiday. Now that we’ve settled that an internet connection is a top holiday priority, why don’t we just use our phone network? Simple: we’ve all heard the horror story of someone getting crazy high bill after spending just a few days in Spain. So, we’re constantly on the search for a local bar or café that offers free Wi-Fi. It’s a fantastic feeling to be wiser than our internet provider – they can’t spring us with unheard-of charges. But connecting to public Wi-Fi comes with its own risks, and, I would argue, scarier ones than an unexpected post-holiday bill. For example, take a look at this infographic. It shows the personal data that can be intercepted and the risks you face to your privacy when you connect to public Wi-Fi without using a VPN. If the thought alone of anyone being able to snoop on what you do online isn’t enough to want to run away from ever connecting to public Wi-Fi again, then think about the bigger risks. The worst case scenario here is you could become a victim of stalking, receive threats, or have your identity stolen. This might sound farfetched, but with what information you reveal on public Wi-Fi, is it worth the risk? If you use a VPN like Freedome while on public Wi-Fi, all your internet traffic will be encrypted. This means instead of your internet traffic connecting directly to the websites from your device, revealing exactly what you’re doing online to the Wi-Fi provider, the VPN will garble your internet traffic and keep what you’re doing online anonymous. You internet privacy and safety is our biggest concern here, and Freedome will definitely provide that security. But here’s a little extra to boost your internet love and consumption when on holiday abroad: When in another country, you might not be able to stream your favorite content from back home. But with Freedome VPN, you can be “virtually” back in your home country, accessing all your favorite content as if you never left.
Score a new smartwatch from Freedome VPN! For your chance to win a 42mm Apple Watch Sport (with a blue band), just log in below with your email or Facebook details and then complete one of the following: Follow us on Twitter @FreedomeVPN Tweet a message using #FreedomeVPN Answer our anonymity poll Log in here to enter Do all three of the above and you’ll get entered into the draw three times! Competition closes at 11.59pm 31 July 2016 UTC+2. The winner will be selected at random and announced within 48 hours via email or Facebook. Good luck!