Computer viruses tend to grab our attention. On the one hand, viruses show us how vulnerable we are. A properly engineered virus can have an amazing effect on the worldwide Internet. On the other hand, they show how sophisticated and interconnected human beings have become.
For example, experts estimate that the Mydoom worm infected approximately a quarter-million computers in a single day in January 2004. (Times Online). Back in March 1999, the Melissa virus was so powerful that it forced Microsoft and a number of other very large companies to completely turn off their e-mail systems until the virus could be contained. The ILOVEYOU virus in 2000 had a similarly devastating effect. That's pretty impressive when you consider that the Melissa and ILOVEYOU viruses are incredibly simple.
In this article, we will discuss viruses -- both "traditional" viruses and the newer e-mail viruses -- so that you can learn how they work and also understand how to protect yourself. Viruses in general are on the wane, but occasionally a person finds a new way to create one, and that's when they make the news.
Types of Infection
When you listen to the news, you hear about many different forms of electronic infection. The most common are:
* Viruses - A virus is a small piece of software that piggybacks on real programs. For example, a virus might attach itself to a program such as a spreadsheet program. Each time the spreadsheet program runs, the virus runs, too, and it has the chance to reproduce (by attaching to other programs) or wreak havoc.
* E-mail viruses - An e-mail virus moves around in e-mail messages, and usually replicates itself by automatically mailing itself to dozens of people in the victim's e-mail address book.
* Worms - A worm is a small piece of software that uses computer networks and security holes to replicate itself. A copy of the worm scans the network for another machine that has a specific security hole. It copies itself to the new machine using the security hole, and then starts replicating from there, as well.
* Trojan horses - A Trojan horse is simply a computer program. The program claims to do one thing (it may claim to be a game) but instead does damage when you run it (it may erase your hard disk). Trojan horses have no way to replicate automatically.
What's a "Virus"?
Computer viruses are called viruses because they share some of the traits of biological viruses. A computer virus passes from computer to computer like a biological virus passes from person to person.
There are similarities at a deeper level, as well. A biological virus is not a living thing. A virus is a fragment of DNA inside a protective jacket. Unlike a cell, a virus has no way to do anything or to reproduce by itself -- it is not alive. Instead, a biological virus must inject its DNA into a cell. The viral DNA then uses the cell's existing machinery to reproduce itself. In some cases, the cell fills with new viral particles until it bursts, releasing the virus. In other cases, the new virus particles bud off the cell one at a time, and the cell remains alive.
A computer virus shares some of these traits. A computer virus must piggyback on top of some other program or document in order to get executed. Once it is running, it is then able to infect other programs or documents. Obviously, the analogy between computer and biological viruses stretches things a bit, but there are enough similarities that the name sticks.
What's a "Worm"?
A worm is a computer program that has the ability to copy itself from machine to machine. Worms normally move around and infect other machines through computer networks. Using a network, a worm can expand from a single copy incredibly quickly. For example, the Code Red worm replicated itself over 250,000 times in approximately nine hours on July 19, 2001.
A worm usually exploits some sort of security hole in a piece of software or the operating system. For example, the Slammer worm (which caused mayhem in January 2003) exploited a hole in Microsoft's SQL server. This article offers a fascinating look inside Slammer's tiny (376 byte) program.