What Is Malware?
Malware (short for “malicious software”) is a file or code, typically delivered over a network, that infects, explores, steals or conducts virtually any behavior an attacker wants. Though varied in type and capabilities, malware usually has one of the following objectives:
- Provide remote control for an attacker to use an infected machine.
- Send spam from the infected machine to unsuspecting targets.
- Investigate the infected user’s local network.
- Steal sensitive data.
Malware is an inclusive term for all types of malicious software, such as:
Viruses – Programs that copy themselves throughout a computer or network. Viruses piggyback on existing programs and can only be activated when a user opens the program. At their worst, viruses can corrupt or delete data, use the user’s email to spread, or erase everything on a hard disk.
Worms – Self-replicating viruses that exploit security vulnerabilities to automatically spread themselves across computers and networks. Unlike many viruses, worms do not attach to existing programs or alter files. They typically go unnoticed until replication reaches a scale that consumes significant system resources or network bandwidth.
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Trojans – Malware disguised in what appears to be legitimate software. Once activated, Trojans will conduct whatever action they have been programmed to carry out. Unlike viruses and worms, Trojans do not replicate or reproduce through infection. “Trojan” alludes to the mythological story of Greek soldiers hidden inside a wooden horse that was given to the enemy city of Troy.
Rootkits – Programs that provide privileged (root-level) access to a computer. Rootkits vary and hide themselves in the operating system.
Remote Administration Tools (RATs) – Software that allows a remote operator to control a system. These tools were originally built for legitimate use, but are now used by threat actors. RATs enable administrative control, allowing an attacker to do almost anything on an infected computer. They are difficult to detect, as they don’t typically show up in lists of running programs or tasks, and their actions are often mistaken for the actions of legitimate programs.
Botnets – Short for “robot network,” these are networks of infected computers under the control of single attacking parties using command-and-control servers. Botnets are highly versatile and adaptable, able to maintain resilience through redundant servers and by using infected computers to relay traffic. Botnets are often the armies behind today’s distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks.
Spyware – Malware that collects information about the usage of the infected computer and communicates it back to the attacker. The term includes botnets, adware, backdoor behavior, keyloggers, data theft and net-worms.
Polymorphic malware – Any of the above types of malware with the capacity to “morph” regularly, altering the appearance of the code while retaining the algorithm within. The alteration of the surface appearance of the software subverts detection via traditional virus signatures.