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What is the Difference Between Viruses and Malware?

Has your computer suddenly slowed down or started acting strangely? Have you lost access to your files and folders? Then you might say that you’ve been infected with a virus.

People often use the words “virus” or “malware” interchangeably. However, they are wrong to do so because virus and malware are not quite the same.

Are you curious what the difference between viruses and malware is? Then keep on reading because I’m going to explain it all.

What’s a virus?

To understand how computer viruses work, I’m going to bring back memories from biologic class. Yes, that’s right. First, I’m going to talk about human viruses.

As some of you might remember, viruses are infectious agents. They are capable of replicating only in the living cells of a host. Once they enter the body, they inject their code –RNK or DNK, depending on the virus – inside the cells.

As a result, the cell starts to reproduce the virus’s code instead of its own. The cell continues to make numerous copies of the virus until they burst out of the cell. Then the virus goes to infect other cells and the same process repeats.

Computer viruses share similar traits with the human ones. A computer virus by definition is a contagious piece of code. It infects the host’s programs or software and becomes part of it. Then under the right circumstances, the virus starts to replicate.

How do viruses work?

One of the earliest examples of computer viruses was Elk Cloner. Richard Skrenta, a ninth-grader, created it back in 1981. It was a prank virus injected on a game and spread through a floppy disk. The virus would activate on the 50th time you start the game. Then it would infect the computer and display a poem message.

Basically, the virus stays inactive until you do something. For example, when you run the application, click on an icon or when a certain amount of time has passed. It’s also possible to program viruses to activate on a date.

So, once the virus is active, it would copy itself and spread to other files on the computer or over the network, if your computer is connected to one. However, if the only thing the virus could do is spread to other files, we couldn’t be so concerned about it.

Viruses could do all sorts of nasty things once they infected your device. For example:

  • Use your laptop to launch a DOS attack on a server
  • Slow down your laptop by taking too much CPU
  • Spam your email contacts
  • Steal sensitive information
  • Render the device useless
  • Log the keystrokes

In addition to this, just like human viruses, computer viruses are “contagious.” It means that connecting a drive to an infected device puts your machine in risk of infection. It’s the equivalent to having close contact with a sick person.

In the past, the primary way for infection was by floppy disks because people used them to store information.

While floppy disks are out of commission, USB and other external devices are still vulnerable, so you have to be careful not to connect to computers/laptops, tablets or transfer any unfamiliar and unchecked files and folders.

So, to sum it up. Computers viruses are pieces of code that become part of a program, and it relies on that program to spread.

What is malware?

Malware means malicious software and as such encompasses several different types of entities. In this sense, computer viruses are a type of malware. However, the malicious threat user faces today are different than viruses.

Let’s take, for example, ILOVEYOU deemed by some as one of the worst computer “viruses.” It was an email with the title “ILOVEYOU” and an attacked “loved letter.” People clicked on the attachment thinking that it was an ordinary text file.

Unfortunately, the attachment was not a text file, but an executive one. It did some damage on the machine by overwriting files and sending infected emails to all contacts in the Windows Address Book. As a result, it spread very quickly.

You’ll hear a lot of people calling ILOVEYOU a virus, but it was actually a computer worm. Worms share similarities to viruses because they make copies to spread, but they don’t require a host program. That’s why ILOVEYOU was able to send a copy of the worm to all contacts.

These computers worms are standalone pieces of software and are more or less independent. They exploit a vulnerability in the system, for example, security bugs or rely on the user’s negligence to enter.

Trojan horses are another popular malware. Just like the wooden horse the Greek used to trick the Trojans, this malware looks like legitimate software. You probably won’t even know that you’ve downloaded something fishy until your device start slowing up or you get a lot of unusual messages.

Unlike worms and viruses, Trojan horses don’t make copies and or inject themselves into other programs. However, they create backdoors to your system so that hackers or another individual with no good intention might get access to it.

How to protect against virus and malware?

After reading through all that, I think I know what goes through your mind. What can you do to protect your device against malware and viruses?

The first line of defense is your antivirus program. You have to keep it up to date with the most recent virus definition and schedule regular scants. There are a lot of free antivirus programs that will do a nice job of keeping your system protected.

However, if you have a lot of sensitive information or any data that you can’t easily replace, I would say that you should go with a paid one.

Having an excellent antivirus program is not enough. Even the best one can’t protect you if you do something stupid. For example, opening an email attachment from suspicious email senders. Or click on a link a friend sends you on Facebook.

Another popular way many users get infected with worms and viruses is through what they download. Cracked software and games, torrents and songs are not as safe as you might think. What’s more, there are a lot of sites that offer updates and exe files that are full of malicious software.

As a rule of thumb, don’t download anything from unlicensed companies and never disable your antivirus. Also, do not reveal your password to anyone.

As a conclusion, I would like to say that malware is constantly evolving. Hackers are always looking for ways to beat the operating system’s developers. That’s why it’s imperative that you always keep your software up to date or worms might exploit any vulnerability they find.

What do you think on the subject? Do you understand the difference between viruses and malware? Share your thoughts in the comment section.

(Last Updated On: May 25, 2022)
About the author

    Whale Sumo

    Hwang is a self-proclaimed nerd who loves helping people understand complex concepts. He has a passion for crypto and online privacy and enjoys teaching others about the benefits of both. Hwang is an advocate for individual freedom and believes that knowledge is power. When he's not busy sharing his knowledge with the world, Hwang can be found running full marathons or playing video games.