Tell Me About... Viruses and Worms - Part 1

This week Doc begins a 3-part series on viruses and worms.
Published: May 18, 2006
Author: Michael E, Callahan
Related OS: Windows
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Computer Viruses and Worms - Part 1

by Michael E. Callahan aka Dr. File Finder

This question submitted by Lisa Newman, Donna Zander, Bill Thompson,Alex Picard, Kate Cummings, Alton George, and numerous others

I receive questions about viruses, worms, trojans, time bombs, and othertype of malware from many users. The scope of the questions aresuch that I'm going to answer in three parts. This week I'll talkabout what viruses and worms are. In Part 2 I'll talk about someof the different types of viruses, like email, boot sector, and thelike. Finally, in Part 3, I'll look at the non-virus virus.


Viruses. You hear about them all the time. In the world of biologyviruses are tiny, infectious particles that attack living cells. A virusis ridiculously simple, when compared to complex organisms, just someDNA covered by some protein, and yet they can wreak havoc. A virus isn'teven alive, it's dead. In order to reproduce they have to get inside aliving cell. They're passed easily from person to person, making themeven more dangerous. Read this carefully and you'll quickly see howcomputer viruses got their name.

What Is A Virus?

Like their biological counterparts computer viruses are passed easilyfrom computer to computer. They're small, and compared to a complexsoftware program, they're relatively simple, yet they can wreak havocon computers. Computer viruses even spread in a way that is similar tothe way that biological viruses spread. Fascinating.

Computer viruses are small "programs" that are carried from one computerto another either in or on another program or file. Just like theirbiological namesakes, they can't do anything by themselves. You couldhave 10 emails sitting on your computer with viruses attached to eachand your computer would be just fine. In order to infect anothercomputer a virus must be executed or run, just like any otherprogram. And that is the mistake that most people make. So, a computervirus, like a biological virus, is dead until it can start toreproduce.

When Did Viruses Appear?

I'm utilizing my memory, so don't quote me, but the first computer virusI recall was in the mid-1980's. Back then some programmers actuallyplayed games where they would try to write code and attack theiropponents. The opponents would retaliate and write something that wouldcounter the attack. For most programmers in the 1980's this was viewedas an exercise, like practicing multiplication tables or saying thealphabet. It gave them practice in coding and a bit of a challenge. Atsome point, however, someone decided to take the "game" out of the labor university and spread it around. Computer viruses were born.

Some of the very first computer viruses were actually harmless. Severalwere actually commercials for products. I recall one in about 1985 or1986 that simply gave disks the volume name "Brain." So, many earlyviruses didn't harm the computer, they were simply spread to prove apoint or get the word out about something. Sadly, that trend didn't lastlong.

From about 1987 on, viruses started to get more complex and morenumerous. I vividly recall that the network that would eventually becomethe Internet (ARPANET) was crashed by a worm in 1988. For the most part,however, viruses didn't start to really proliferate until the 1990's.

What Is A Worm?

Generally speaking, a worm is specifically designed to takeadvantage of a flaw in a program. Or an operating system. So, unlike avirus, which spreads randomly and has a general goal, a worm isdeveloped with a target in mind. Most worms will exploit a gap inthe security of the program ooperating system. Thhaveeen wormsthat have taken over Defense Department computers, exploited flaws inInternet Explorer, attacked users of Outlook, and more.

This gives you a brief background of what viruses and worms are and abrief look into their history. Next week I'll be back and we'll look atsome of the specific types of viruses. I hope you'll join me then.

I'd like to thank Lisa Newman, Donna Zander, Bill Thompson, AlexPicard, Kate Cummings, Alton George, and numerous others for askingthis question.

If you have a question on any technology topic that you'd like someoneto tell you about you can submit it via email by clicking HERE You will not receive a reply, but all topics will be considered.

About Michael E, Callahan

Michael E. Callahan, known around the world by the trademarked name Dr. File Finder, is regarded as the world's leading expert on shareware. Dr. File Finder works with software programs and developers full-time, and in the average year he evaluates 10,000 programs. Since 1982 he has evaluated over 250,000 software and hardware products. Mr. Callahan began evaluating software online in 1982 and no one has been at it longer. He currently works doing online PR and marketing for software companies, and is the Senior Content Producer for Butterscotch.Com.

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