What Is Malware? A Little Insight into IT Infections

What Is MalwareEver curious why a word like malware sparks a not-so-warm-and-fuzzy feeling? We don’t typically feel so great about words like malevolent (for your favorite villains), malignant (for those unsavory human infections) or malicious (getting closer to the IT world here) either. If you’re included in this group, you can rest easy knowing your instincts are sharp because malware is definitely NOT a good thing.

It’s important to know about malware because it’s one part of the big cybersecurity picture, and companies are hungry for IT pros with cybersecurity skills. In a recent survey that CompTIA fielded to several countries, cybersecurity ranked second behind emerging tech for skill gaps that companies were concerned about. Learning about malware and other cyberthreats is an important part of becoming a cybersecurity expert.

Top Five Areas Where Companies Report Skill Gaps

Malware Defined: What Exactly Are We Looking At?

The word malware is a mash up of the words malicious and software. The term malware refers to any software that is intended to threaten or compromise information or systems. Hackers use malware to compromise networks or devices with the intent of stealing information or making a system inoperable. Malware is most often used to illicitly obtain information or disrupt business operations.

A Brief History of Malware

The first malware dates back to the 1980s. The first documented computer virus was discovered on a Mac in 1982 and was dubbed Elk Cloner. A strain of PC-based malware was discovered not long after in 1986 and was titled Brain.

The evolution of malware seems to directly correspond with the development of technology. Much like superheroes who develop new powers only to be met with an equally-matched enemy, malware often develops alongside the technology businesses are adopting. When email became popular, so did email-based malware, for example.

While it would be difficult to chronicle all the malware instances over the past 40 years, we can give you a brief rundown.

  • The 80s saw the first viruses and internet-based attacks.
  • The 90s saw more sophistication as email viruses began to take hold.
  • In the 2000s, malware ramped up with the entrance of phishing and web-based applications.
  • From 2010 on, we’ve seen the most sophisticated attacks with worms, spyware, ransomware and other malware attacking connected devices and businesses in an attempt to compromise information.

Types of Malware: Categories of Compromise

Types of Malware: Categories of Compromise Malware is a general term that encompasses many different types of threatening software. For IT pros, it’s important to identify which category malware falls into in order to determine the best approach for containment.

Here are the different types of malware:

  • Virus: Similar to a real-life virus, this type of malware attaches itself to benign files on your computer and then replicates, spreading itself and infecting other files.
  • Worms: Worms resemble viruses as they are a type of infection that replicates to infect other systems. However, unlike viruses, worms don’t need a host to spread. Worms are self-sustaining and can spread without human or technological assistance.
  • Trojans: The trojan hails its name from the story of the Trojan Horse. Trojans masquerade as harmless software and can initiate a variety of attacks on systems. Some trojans are aided by human action while others function without user intervention.
  • Spyware: Another type of malware with a telling name, spyware is software that is covertly installed on a system or device and monitors activities to glean useful information.
  • Bots: Bots are often used to automate tasks and dynamically interact with website visitors. Unfortunately, what is used for good can often be commandeered for evil, and bots are a prime example of that. Botnets connect back to a server and self-propagate, making them particularly useful for compromising a large number of devices. This is a common tactic in DDoS attacks.
  • Ransomware: This category of malware locks you out of systems or encrypts your data, with the intent of restoring access once a fee is paid.
  • Adware: Adware is a particular nuisance when it comes to malware. It takes shape in the form of popups and advertising that send out data when clicked upon.
  • Rootkits: Rootkits use a process known as hooking to obtain access to and modify operating system API calls that are used to supply system information. This form of malware is present at the kernel level or on system firmware. Rootkits can be used to mask nefarious activities taking place behind the scenes.
  • Keyloggers: Keylogger programs track keystrokes to help attackers discern sensitive information.

This is by no means a complete list, but it offers a jumping-off point for identifying and evaluating more sophisticated threats.

What Is Mobile Malware? Malware on the Go

Malware isn’t limited to PCs – it can invade mobile devices as well. As you may have guessed, mobile malware is a type of attack that targets the software specific to mobile devices. While attacks have traditionally targeted desktop computers, mobile malware is becoming more prevalent especially as mobile devices are utilized to conduct business affairs.

Mobile malware often mimics the types we see on larger systems and may include categories such as trojans, ransomware and spyware.

What Is Android Malware?

Android malware is software that specifically affects Android devices. In recent years, Google has identified malware that particularly affects Android devices and has caused a bit of chaos for Android users.

One especially nasty piece of Android malware, known as xHelper, was identified in April 2020. It uses a trojan to collect information from your device and then install another trojan. It gets so deep into your device that it may not be removable even if the device is reset to factory settings.

What Is iPhone, or iOS, Malware?

Similar to Android malware, iPhone, or iOS, malware is malware that specifically targets the software on iPhones and iPads. Given Apple’s stringent protocols, these devices are well-known for being largely impervious to malware. However, the popularity of these devices makes them a very appealing target, and they are not exempt from cyberattacks. For example, a zero-day vulnerability has recently been identified as a possible weakness to iPhones. The zero-day flaw created a vulnerability in Apple’s native mail app. Attackers could trigger the bugs by sending a large email to gain access to the target device.

What Is IoT Malware?

Internet of Things (IoT) malware involves attacks of a different variety. Because IoT devices are by nature connected to each other, malicious attacks on IoT can potentially do large amounts of harm.

The connectivity between multiple systems and devices also makes it difficult to safeguard them with security software. One infamous IoT malware allowed hackers to control baby monitors, while still others targeted IP cameras and home routers. Read more about securing IoT devices, including baby monitors.

How to Prevent and Protect Against Malware: A Primer in Safety

Protecting against malware is often easily done with responsible device and password management and a healthy dose of best practices.

Here are some tips to help protect your device and prevent malware:

How to Remove Malware

Removing malware from your device can be tricky as there are so many different forms it can take. Here are some general steps you can take.

  1. Disconnect from the internet by turning off your Wi-Fi in your device’s settings or unplugging your Ethernet cable.
  2. Engage the safe mode on your device. Safe mode can usually be found in the device’s startup settings. Turning it on only allows essential apps and programs to start, preventing the spread of malware.
  3. Shut down any suspicious apps. You can identify malicious apps by limiting downloads to verified sources, such as the App Store or Google Play. Other red flags of infected app usage may include unusually large amounts of data usage.
  4. Run a malware scanner, such as McAfee or Symantec, that differs from your existing antivirus software.
  5. Clear your cache to prevent any saved malware from re-infecting your systems. You can do this by opening your browser settings and clearing browsing data.
  6. When all else fails, restore the default settings. This setting is often located in your control panel and will set your device to the factory settings. Do this only after all other options have been exhausted.

How to Remove Android Malware

Android malware results from the download of a malicious app, and you can remove it in a way similar to how you’d resolve desktop-related issues. To remove Android malware from your device, shut down your phone and restart it in safe mode. If you still experience issues, try removing suspicious or unused apps. If all else fails, restore your factory settings. To prevent future Android malware, you can also install a mobile security app.

How to Remove iPhone Malware

The iPhone remains one of the most secure devices because it does not use third-party app stores. Should you experience strange behavior from your iPhone, immediately restart your device. If that doesn’t immediately take care of any problems, clear your iPhone’s data and browser history. If all else fails, restore it to an earlier version.

What’s the Difference Between Ransomware vs. Malware vs. Social Engineering vs. Phishing?

Ransomware, malware, social engineering and phishing all encompass different forms of ill-intentioned cyberattacks.

  • Malware is a general term formed by the words “malicious” and “software” that describes different types of software intended to compromise systems, obtain sensitive data or gain unsanctioned access to a network.
  • Ransomware is a category of malware where attackers use various methods to encrypt your data, making it inaccessible, or bar you from entry to a particular system or device. Attackers then demand a ransom in exchange for reinstating your access.
  • Social Engineering, by contrast, is a method used to extract sensitive details by way of human manipulation. With social engineering, hackers connect with users while pretending to represent a legitimate organization and seek to ascertain critical information such as account numbers or passwords.
  • Phishing is a form of social engineering that involves email, phone, text or illegitimate websites. In both instances, the collected information is used to access protected accounts or data.

While our guide acts as an introduction into the threats posed by malware, this is by no means an exhaustive list. Malware and the cybersecurity world change on a daily basis, and attacks are becoming increasingly sophisticated. The best way to combat cyberattacks is to stay informed about the latest attacks.

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