The Difference Between Viruses and Malware

You’ve no doubt seen them on your computer: the popups telling you to buy their Anti-virus product because your computer is “infected”; the strange ads and search bars that appear when you google something; ominous popups alerting you that your files are encrypted.

These dastardly interrupters are what you probably know as “viruses” or “malware” – and you probably use the words interchangeably. But are they the same thing? Not exactly.

Viruses are, in fact, a subcategory of Malware. The latter word, in fact, is a shortened version of Malicious Software, an umbrella term for any software that does harmful or unwanted things to your computer, usually without your permission or knowledge. Since viruses certainly fit that bill, they can be considered Malware.

The truth is, viruses aren’t prevalent in modern computers and networks these days. Chances are, if you’ve experienced an invasive attack on your system in the last five to 10 years, you’ve probably experienced some other type of Malware infection, and not a virus.

“Wait,” you might be thinking, “so why am I even using an antivirus program?” Rest assured, modern Antivirus prevents (or tries to prevent) all types of Malware; it’s just that the term “Antivirus” was coined when viruses were the only type of Malware in existence.

Why are viruses less common now? Looking at their attributes will help explain. A virus is:

  • … a malware program that focuses on spreading from computer to computer, and damaging programs/files or altering a computer’s operation.
  • … usually designed to hook into existing software and sit undetected until it can run, inflicting the damage is was designed to do.
  • … unique among types of Malware in that they usually aren’t standalone programs, rather they are designed to run inside or alongside other programs.
  • … one of the oldest forms of Malware; early viruses were often created as jokes or for experimental purposes.
  • While most recent viruses are designed primarily to harm a computer, the only real difference between a virus and most other types of Malware is that it’s also concerned with spreading itself.

Part of why viruses aren’t common today stems from how they are designed. Modern computer software is built to be resistant to other code modifying its processes; and modern computer operating systems, like Microsoft Windows 7 and 8, have features that allow them to be resistant to programs designed to spread themselves without user knowledge. Another part of the picture is that most Malware authors are now primarily concerned with cybercrime, so why damage the computers they could be profiting from?

Great! We don’t have to worry about viruses any more, right?!? Well, don’t uninstall your Antivirus software just yet!

The rest of the Malware world is considered much more dangerous, as they’re designed specifically to profit from your sensitive data, files, and passwords. The cyber-criminals behind today’s Malware would rather steal files from under your nose, monitor what you’re typing and reading for banking numbers, credit card numbers, and other sensitive passwords, insert their popup ads to your Google searches, or try to trick you into paying them ransom.

See our previously written blog on Bit Coin and Ransom.

In short, they would rather use some other type of Malware. And there are a lot of them out there. We’ll explore other types of malware in future blogs.

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