Malware…the very name sounds ominous and when spoken or written, even those who don't know what
it means feel a sensation of disquiet. The term itself is actually a compound word. MAL, comes frommalicious, while WARE finds its origins in the word software. So in essence and by definition, malware is malicious software. There are a number of different things that can constitute malware. Wikipedia defines malware as "software designed to secretly access a computer system without the owner's informed consent." Most people will usually think of a computer virus as malware, which it is. However, the infamous 'virus' is not the biggest malware threat on the net.
The first time that a piece of malicious software went out was in the late 1970's (1978 to be exact) in the form of a spam email over ARPAnet. Since that time, malware defenses have grown stronger and those programmers designing malware applications have become more sophisticated and surreptitious than ever before. Apple computers boasts that they are less prone to malware than Windows machines, so it is with a bit of irony that we can trace back one of the earliest cyber attacks aimed specifically at the Apple II computer. Admittedly, there were not many other targets during the early 1980's, but the virus titled "Elk Cloner" designed by high school student Rich Skrenta in 1982 is commonly called the first computer 'virus' on record.
Whether the malware is a spam email, virus, worm, keylogger, auto dialer, Trojan, or rootkits they all have one thing in common. They intend to gain access to private computers and systems to do something that the owners of said computers and systems do not want them to do. In some cases, they mine the system for data that can be sent out and then resold to marketers trying to hawk their cyber-wares to unsuspecting targets. In other cases, the information gathered will allow access to bank accounts and other personal information that accounts for identity theft and simple larceny of bank accounts and credit card numbers.
In recent years, the most difficult form of malware to deal with from a defensive standpoint is the worm. A worm is like a super virus, but much harder to detect and exponentially harder to get rid of. The worm, unlike a virus, will spread itself to all connected computers to wreak its havoc. In some cases these programs will collect private and personal information to be used in the process of identity theft for financial gain. In other situations, they will log the web surfing habits of individuals along with email addresses, email address books, and other contact information and then send all this information back to the original propagator to be sold to the highest bidder in order to exploit directly to a market niche.
Sometime the malware will simply cause the computer to stop working properly until the owner pays a fee to have it 'removed', this is in essence a hostage type scenario. In some cases, it is simply the anarchistic outpourings of a cyber-megalomaniac trying to cause other people misfortune and damage for the sheer pleasure of it.
In recent years, the most well known and widespread or "successful" worm was the 'Conficker worm'. First detected in 2008 it is considered the largest computer infection after the 2003 SQL Slammer. Conficker is estimated to have infected more than 7,000,000 computers worldwide in more than two hundred countries.
In some cases, the worm can hide itself in root files of the computer. These rootkits are virtually impossible for anti-virus software to detect. The only way to ensure that you are not exposed to malware is to never connect your computer to the internet. Most people are not willing to go to this extreme to protect their computers. The next best thing is to install a good anti-virus software program as well as other programs designed to sniff out threats that anti-virus software is unable to detect.
In the world of cyber crime, malware still reigns supreme. The designers of malware are truly genius in their design skills. Fortunately, those employed by companies to defend against the attacks of malware artists are equally skilled and intelligent. The only problem with this type of system is that the good guys are doomed to always be a step behind, since they are limited to reacting in the light of the criminals actions.