If you operate a computerised device in today’s world you are under siege! That is correct, under attack from every corner. There are thousands of individuals, corporations and even countries that are actively engaged in gaining data about you so they can either influence your opinion or gain profit in some way from you, with or without your consent. A major way they seek to do this is via “malicious software” or malware as it is commonly known.
Malware can come in the form of viruses, spyware, Trojan horses and worms. These programs attempt to disrupt your use of technology by deleting or corrupting data, misdirecting your web browsing habits and even gaining sensitive financial information. The good news is that there is an army of software available to hold off the most persistent of these threats. A lot of it is available to you, as a private user, for little or no cost.
How do we get these malware programs installed on our computers? Today’s operating systems come prepared with a lot of in built defence systems for just such attacks. In general, if you have a system that has no way to interact with other, external systems you have no way for the unwanted software to “infect” your device. With our online world however there are many ways to transfer these programs to our computer simply by interacting with the external technosphere.
Possible ways to gain malware is by:
- USB sticks or flash drives
- Floppy disks
- External hard drives
- CD’s and DVD’s
- Mobile devices and tablets
- Local area networks
- Wide area networks (ie. The internet)
Some malware can target your computer by specialising in the method of delivery but the main problem is that “we” circumvent the operating system software’s inherent security protocols. The user can do this by loading the malware willingly or sometimes all it takes is a simple click of the mouse. Today, the operating system will usually give a warning prompt to the effect of “Do you really want to install this?” Unless you are really sure of what you are loading it may be prudent to say “No!”
So, how can we check that our external interactions can conducted with a better level of security? Enter third party software. To meet this malware threat a whole new software sector has arisen, the anti-malware industry. Anti- Virus/Spyware/Adware companies are now significant players in the software world. You can install software that helps you make decisions to protect your computer and data from interference.
A virus is a software program that replicates itself when it is executed. Sometimes the program modifies itself when copying. The program can place itself in data drives, other programs, data files and the start-up (boot) sector of a computer or device. These programs act like a biological virus and these altered areas are basically “infected”. These programs can be simply an annoyance or in extreme cases permanently corrupt or destroy files and even hardware. As with the anti-malware industry the antivirus companies offer a raft of protective measures from these viruses. Most modern computer operating systems have a large array of inbuilt safeguards to save the system itself being infected. Once more, even the best protective measures can be bypassed with the consent of the user. Being aware of what programs you consent to let operate on your device can save a lot of grief.
Spyware doesn’t sound nice and it usually isn’t. A program that has the sole purpose on snooping on what you do with your device. This can range from watching your internet browsing habits to logging the keys you push to log into your online banking.
The most common form of spyware is called cookies. Not your average American biscuit but a small log file stored on your computer that tracks some of the things you do when visiting certain websites. These sites will use the data stored in the data file (cookie) relating to that website to try and tailor your experience when you visit them. This can be handy if you go to a site that sells fishing gear and the data in the cookie allows the site to take you directly to the lures you usually buy, bypassing the need to click through the whole catalogue. While cookies cannot place a virus or malware on your computer some third party cookies can track your long term browsing habits which you might view a privacy issue.
Another more insidious form of spyware is called key loggers. These programs can be placed on your device by a virus for example and send a record of your keyboard strokes back to the originating party. Obviously this can create a real threat to not only privacy but your personal security as well. Spyware can be thwarted not only by anti-spyware programs but also by a program called a firewall that helps prevent the data gained by the spyware being sent elsewhere.
Adware simply puts advertising in front of you the user. Some adware is legitimate, generally used by software developers to recoup some of the costs of presenting their product. The program may be offered for free but if you want to get rid of the advertisements you may have to pay a fee. Other more malicious versions of these programs give you no choice and just slam advertisements in your face! Furthermore they may track your browsing history to target the advertising more to your interests. A common form is a browser redirect which sends you to a site you did not intend to visit. In my experience this has typically been to online gaming or hard core pornography sites. This is disturbing when there are youngsters about and people are embarrassed to call someone to fix these issues even though it is rarely any fault of their own. Again, the developers of browsers (like Internet Explorer, Chrome and Firefox) have a range of features that allow you to block pop up ads and redirects. They can also be augmented by specific programs that helps prevent these problems.
It is a big world out there and we are more connected to it than ever before. Thinking that your are wandering in a strange land and using all the caution that usually goes with that experience is a good way to look at the world connected to your computer. The operator of the device is usually the best defence against malware. You can be aided by the best programs about however if you click on something you are not sure about or install a program that you do not wholly trust then you risk bypassing all those safeguards.
At the end of the day, there is usually help out there just a phone call away. If you are not sure about a program or if things look dire, don’t hesitate to yell for help.