This week an Anti-virus company proved a ‘proof of concept’, showing that in principle a worm, (a type of computer virus) could be spread using Twitter. This is just the latest development in a 30 year game of cat and mouse between virus writers and anti-virus providers. So what exactly do we mean when we talk about computer viruses? In simple terms, it’s any computer programme or piece of code with the ability to copy itself and infect other computers or devices without the permission of the owner. A typical virus will have a purpose, (to damage your computer, network, data or reputation to use your computer to for its own purposes – attaching another computer, system or person, or to steal your information, data or identity) it will have a trigger (something that activates it, starting off on its mission) and it will have a means of replicating itself (copying itself onto networked machines, memory sticks, or utilizing email, messaging services or social networks). What then is the difference between a virus and a trojan, netbot, or piece of malware? Essentially very little, but a virus has the ability to self-replicate without permission. The others can all cause just as much damage, and often trick the user into installing them, but essentially they do initially require some action to be taken. According to anti virus companies there are some 250,000 known viruses in existence. These virus are often split into a number of groups described by their chief characteristics including: Boot Sector (infect the boot sector of a hard drive or floppy disk), Macro (utilize macro commands, commonly used in word and excel for example), File Infecting (replace legitimate files with viruses), Multi-partite (use a combination of techniques, boot sector and file infecting), Polymorphic (often difficult to detect as they use code that changes, along with the viruses’ appearance after each infection), and Stealth viruses (hide themselves from a computers’ operating system and anti-virus products). The first known virus, “The Creeper”, was detected on ARPANET (the predecessor of the internet) in the early 70’s , it did little more that remotely access machines on the network and display the message , “I’m the creeper, catch me if you can!”. There have of course been far more harmful viruses since then, the Chernobyl virus was amongst the worst, attacking the boot sector and bios, rendering both the hardware and the data stored on it useless. There have also been far more active viruses the W32/Mydoom virus was producing between 50,000 and 60,000 new copies of itself per hour at its peak (about 1 in 12 emails). Like their medical name sake computer virus are constantly changing. As technology (and the way we use it) changes, virus writer find new ways to utilize that technology to spread their viruses. In the 70’s it was Arpanet, in the 80’s it moved on to floppy disks and dial up modems, in the 90’s it shifted to micro viruses, this decade has seen email and the internet under attack, most recently it has bean a shift to social networking sites like ‘youtube’ and ’facebook’, and now it looks like it could be twitter’s turn. I recently spoke to an antivirus company and what scared them most was the idea of a super virus that could use the huge processing powers of today’s pc to hide within very complex algorithms, and could not only be targeted to a specific task, but could also be targeted to a specific victim, something that generic patent matching engines could not spot. They also spoke of the risk of a potential ‘perfect storm’ a virus that combined both the worst of destructive powers with the most efficient self-replication systems. At best a virus will cause you some inconvenience, slowing your computer and costing you time and effort to remove, at worst it could cost you the replacement cost of the hardware and loss of earning while you recover your data. It is estimated that 75% of businesses will suffer at least one viruses or malware attack a year and that collectively it costs billions of pound a year to but right the damage that they cause.
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