Computer Viruses

Computer Viruses: What They Are and How to Protect Yourself

Computer viruses are programs that, like biological viruses, can replicate themselves, spread from one computer (or body) to another, and generally cause problems. Today there are various types of programs that spread among computers, and they are collectively called “malware” ( mal icious soft ware ). Depending on the form of malware, the damage can be just annoying (lots of pop-up ads, or otherwise slowing the performance of your computer) to downright disastrous (causing you to reformat a harddrive). If your computer starts acting “strangely,” then you might have a low level virus. Regardless of the level of damage, it's worth protecting your computer from them … not to mention one of the worst things about viruses: if you have one you can unknowingly spread it to other people. You don't even have to sneeze or shake hands to spread a computer virus!

How Do I Get the Viruses?

These days most viruses travel through the Internet, primarily by e-mail. The best rule of thumb is not to accept attachments that you are not expecting or don't know about. So many jokes travel via e-mail, and many of them by attachment. Why risk it? At FAU, we have virus scanners on the e-mail servers which analyze attachments for viruses. If an attachment is found to contain a virus, the attachment is removed from the e-mail message; you still get the e-mail but there will be a notice that an attachment was removed.

And How Can I Protect Myself?

The best way to protect your computer is with antivirus software. To continue the biological analogy, antivirus software works similarly to a flu shot – it recognizes the virus and keeps it from infecting your machine. And just as flu vaccines have to be reformulated every year because the flu virus mutates, so the antivirus software has to be updated routinely because the computer viruses are constantly being changed or reinvented. The antivirus software stores virus definitions (ways to recognize the viruses), so you routinely need to update your antivirus definitions.

OIT provides Symantec AntiVirus to all FAU faculty and staff to protect individual computers, hence the entire campus, from viruses. Once you've installed the AntiVirus client on your computer, it routinely checks an FAU server for updated virus definitions. The software does this automatically so you don't need to worry about keeping up with it (unlike having to remember to get a new flu shot every year). However, you can also update the virus definitions manually, in case your computer has been off for some length of time (your computer needs to be on and connected to the network for the automatic updating to work).

New virus definitions are usually released by Symantec weekly. However, if high-vulnerability threats occur, new virus definitions are released more frequently. All updated definitions are automatically installed on your computer by the FAU virus definition update server.

If you have any questions about antivirus software, contact your college computing consultant or the OIT help desk.

Types of Malware

Viruses
often embedded in e-mail messages as attachments. When you open the attachment, the virus program is activated and goes to work. Consequently, do not open attachments you are not expecting or that are from someone you don't know very well and know why they are sending you the attachment.
Worms
similar to viruses but don't need a host file to spread. Worms typically use a vulnerability in a computing system or some other method to trick users into starting them.
Trojan (Trojan Horse)
as the name suggests, it's something that appears harmless, even good, but contains something malicious and dangerous. Unlike viruses and worms, they don't replicate. They can be attached to legitimate software, or spyware, so you don't know it's there. A common result of Trojans is a lot of adware/spyware that causes many popups and ultimately making it near impossible to use a web browser.
Spyware
software that watches how you use your computer and sends the information to whoever is collecting it. Adware, which watches what sites you go to and what you do on them is a kind of spyware. Although spyware doesn't necessarily corrupt your computer, its activity can hurt your computer's performance (for example, windows might open more slowly than usual).
Exploit
software that takes advantage of known security vulnerability. One way to protect yourself from exploits it to keep current with patches for your operating system (Microsoft sends out new service packs when security vulnerabilities or exploits are found).
Key Logger
records all key strokes to a file which is then sent to the hacker. Key loggers are dangerous because they can record login and password or other sensitive information (such as credit card numbers). With that information, a hacker can do a lot of damage.