Viruses, worms, Trojans, and bots are all part of a class of software called “malware.” Malware is short for “malicious software,” also known as malicious code or “malcode.” It is code or software that is specifically designed to damage, disrupt, steal, or in general inflict some other “bad” or illegitimate action on data, hosts, or networks.
There are many different classes of malware that have varying ways of infecting systems and propagating themselves. Malware can infect systems by being bundled with other programs or attached as macros to files. Others are installed by exploiting a known vulnerability in an operating system (OS), network device, or other software, such as a hole in a browser that only requires users to visit a website to infect their computers. The vast majority, however, are installed by some action from a user, such as clicking an email attachment or downloading a file from the Internet.
Some of the more commonly known types of malware are viruses, worms, Trojans, bots, ransomware, backdoors, spyware, and adware. Damage from malware varies from causing minor irritation (such as browser popup ads), to stealing confidential information or money, destroying data, and compromising and/or entirely disabling systems and networks.
In addition to damaging data and software residing on equipment, malware has evolved to target the physical hardware of those systems. Malware should also not be confused with defective software, which is intended for legitimate purposes but contains errors or “bugs.”
Classes of Malicious Software
Two of the most common types of malware are viruses and worms. These types of programs are able to self-replicate and can spread copies of themselves, which might even be modified copies. To be classified as a virus or worm, malware must have the ability to propagate. The difference is that a worm operates more or less independently of other files, whereas a virus depends on a host program to spread itself. These and other classes of malicious software are described below.
Ransomware is a type of malicious software that threatens to publish the victim’s data or perpetually block access to it unless a ransom is paid. While some simple ransomware may lock the system in a way that is not difficult for a knowledgeable person to reverse, more advanced malware uses a technique called cryptoviral extortion, which encrypts the victim’s files, making them inaccessible, and demands a ransom payment to decrypt them.
A computer virus is a type of malware that propagates by inserting a copy of itself into and becoming part of another program. It spreads from one computer to another, leaving infections as it travels. Viruses can range in severity from causing mildly annoying effects to damaging data or software and causing denial-of-service (DoS) conditions. Almost all viruses are attached to an executable files, which means the virus may exist on a system but will not be active or able to spread until a user runs or opens the malicious host file or program. When the host code is executed, the viral code is executed as well. Normally, the host program keeps functioning after it is infected by the virus. However, some viruses overwrite other programs with copies of themselves, which destroys the host program altogether. Viruses spread when the software or document they are attached to is transferred from one computer to another using the network, a disk, file sharing, or infected email attachments.
Computer worms are similar to viruses in that they replicate functional copies of themselves and can cause the same type of damage. In contrast to viruses, which require the spreading of an infected host file, worms are standalone software and do not require a host program or human help to propagate. To spread, worms either exploit a vulnerability on the target system or use some kind of social engineering to trick users into executing them. A worm enters a computer through a vulnerability in the system and takes advantage of file-transport or information-transport features on the system, allowing it to travel unaided. More advanced worms leverage encryption, wipers, and ransomware technologies to harm their targets.
A Trojan is another type of malware named after the wooden horse that the Greeks used to infiltrate Troy. It is a harmful piece of software that looks legitimate. Users are typically tricked into loading and executing it on their systems. After it is activated, it can achieve any number of attacks on the host, from irritating the user (popping up windows or changing desktops) to damaging the host (deleting files, stealing data, or activating and spreading other malware, such as viruses). Trojans are also known to create backdoors to give malicious users access to the system. Unlike viruses and worms, Trojans do not reproduce by infecting other files nor do they self-replicate. Trojans must spread through user interaction such as opening an email attachment or downloading and running a file from the Internet.
“Bot” is derived from the word “robot” and is an automated process that interacts with other network services. Bots often automate tasks and provide information or services that would otherwise be conducted by a human being. A typical use of bots is to gather information, such as webcrawlers, or interact automatically with Instant Messaging, Internet Relay Chart (IRC), or other web interfaces. They may also be used to interact dynamically with websites.
Bots can be used for either good or malicious intent. A malicious bot is self-propagating malware designed to infect a host and connect back to a central server or servers that act as a command and control (C&C) center for an entire network of compromised devices, or “botnet.” With a botnet, attackers can launch broad-based, “remote-control,” flood-type attacks against their target(s).
In addition to the worm-like ability to self-propagate, bots can include the ability to log keystrokes, gather passwords, capture and analyze packets, gather financial information, launch Denial Of Service Attacks, relay spam, and open backdoors on the infected host. Bots have all the advantages of worms, but are generally much more versatile in their infection vector and are often modified within hours of publication of a new exploit. They have been known to exploit backdoors opened by worms and viruses, which allows them to access networks that have good perimeter control. Bots rarely announce their presence with high scan rates that damage network infrastructure; instead, they infect networks in a way that escapes immediate notice.
Advanced botnets may take advantage of common internet of things (IOT) devices such as home electronics or appliances to increase automated attacks. crypto mining is a common use of these bots for nefarious purposes.
An undocumented way of accessing a system, bypassing the normal authentication mechanisms. Some backdoors are placed in the software by the original programmer and others are placed on systems through a system compromise, such as a virus or worm. Usually, attackers use backdoors for easier and continued access to a system after it has been compromised.
A malware variant that modifies the boot sectors of a hard drive, including the Master Boot Record (MBR) and Volume Boot Record (VBR). Adversaries may use bootkits to persist on systems at a layer below the operating system, which may make it difficult to perform full remediation unless an organization suspects one was used and can act accordingly.
Software that modifies a web browser’s settings without a user’s permission to inject unwanted advertising into the user’s browser. A browser hijacker may replace the existing home page, error page, or search engine with its own. These are generally used to force hits to a particular website, increasing its advertising revenue. This software often comes in the form of a browser toolbar and is received through an email attachment or file download.
A class of malware designed specifically to automate cybercrime. Crimeware (distinct from spyware and adware) is designed to perpetrate identity theft through social engineering or technical stealth in order to access a computer user’s financial and retail accounts for the purpose of taking funds from those accounts or completing unauthorized transactions that enrich the cyberthief. Alternatively, crimeware may steal confidential or sensitive corporate information.
Strategies For Combating Malware
- Implementing first-line-of-defense tools that can scale, such as cloud security platforms
- Adhering to policies and practices for application, system, and appliance patching
- Employing network segmentation to help reduce outbreak exposures
- Adopting next-generation endpoint process monitoring tools
- Accessing timely, accurate threat intelligence data and processes that allow that data to be incorporated into security monitoring and eventing
- Performing deeper and more advanced analytics
- Reviewing and practicing security response procedures
- Backing up data often and testing restoration procedures—processes that are critical in a world of fast-moving, network-based ransomware worms and destructive cyber weapons
- Conducting security scanning of microservice, cloud service, and application administration systems
- Reviewing security systems and exploring the use of SSL analytics and, if possible, SSL decryption
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