Antivirus Guide – What Are Viruses and Spyware – A Definition

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Just about everyone who runs Windows runs antivirus and antispyware products.  As you know, Computer Courage spends a lot of time helping people choose the best antivirus and helping people upgrade to free antivirus. You know you need to avoid viruses and spyware, but do you know what they are and why?  This article will help answer those questions.

First off, lets review the types of threats that are out there.  We’re going to work on the basic terms – cookie, tracking cookie, trojan, spyware, and virues.

A cookie is a simple text file that is stored on your computer by a website.  In theory, only the website that left the cookie can read it again.  This allows websites to store some information about their visitors such as your name, your preferences, or shopping cart contents.  Cookies cannot become “viruses” and cannot hurt your computer.  Crafty engineers, however, have discovered ways to create networks of websites that can read the same cookies.  This allows them to track your internet usage across a wide network of sites – hence the name “tracking cookie.”  We first heard of this technology in the late nineties when an ad company, DoubleClick (now owned by Google) started the trend.  Tracking cookies are a bit of an invasion of privacy, but only information you provide to the sites, along with your general browsing patterns, can be revealed.  We appreciate the removal of these cookies by antispyware programs, but the cookies are certainly not a “serious threat.”

Next in line is trojans, aka trojan horses.  Trojans are real, boanfide malicious programs that are sitting on your computer waiting to be run.  A trojan is often disguised as another program (a filesharing program, even an antispyware program.)  When run, these trojans will infect your computer with mailicious code, which can do just about anything depending on the craftiness of the programmer.  Trojans typically will either destroy the operating system and/or files, use your computer to send out spam, or display ads (often pornographic) on your screen.

Spyware refers to a program on your computer that is designed to spy on you.  Technically this includes cookies, trojans, and full blown viruses, as long as the goal is to gain information and/or make money off of your computer, rather than to attack it.  Spyware is commonly passed through trojans in email or attached to packages on filesharing networks.  While spyware technically isn’t out to get you, it has the side-effects of slowing your computer down, slowing your network down, and opening up your computer to other attacks, including mailicous viruses.

A virus, by definition, is a piece of malicious code that replicates itself.  You’ll also hear the term “worm” thrown around, which is much like a virus but often without the malicious aspect (worms are still very dangerous to networks, even if they are only trying to replicate themselves aimlessly.)  A virus is typically considered “worse” than spyware, because it is designed with the specific intention of harming your data or your computer.  We’ve seen viruses prevent Windows from booting, prevent Internet Explorer and Microsoft Outlook from loading, and attempt to steal private or corporate data.  Worse, rumors have circulated describing viruses which demand a credit card number while threatening to delete all your data by a certain deadline (we’ve never seen this.)

Now that you know what types of threats are out there, it’s time to get yourself protected with free antivirus.  Look out for another article coming soon with information about what to do if you think you have a virus.  And remember that you can contact us anytime if you want professional, paid help with your computer systems, security, or websites.  510-525-2226.

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