|All About Computer Viruses
by: Kara Glover
Your computer is as slow as molasses. Your mouse freezes
every 15 minutes, and that Microsoft Word program just
wont seem to open.
You might have a virus.
Just what exactly is a virus? What kind is in your computer?
How did it get there? How is it spreading and wreaking
such havoc? And why is it bothering with your computer
Viruses are pieces of programming code that make copies
of themselves, or replicate, inside your computer without
asking your explicit written permission to do so. Forget
getting your permission down on paper. Viruses dont
bother to seek your permission at all! Very invasive.
In comparison, there are pieces of code that might replicate
inside your computer, say something your IT guy thinks
you need. But the code spreads, perhaps throughout your
office network, with your consent (or at least your IT
guys consent). These types of replicating code are
called agents, said Jimmy Kuo, a research fellow with
McAfee AVERT, a research arm of anti-virus software-maker
In this article, though, were not talking about
the good guys, or the agents. Well be talking about
the bad guys, the viruses.
A long, long time ago in computer years, like five, most
viruses were comprised of a similar breed. They entered
your computer perhaps through an email attachment or a
floppy disk (remember those?). Then they attached themselves
to one of your files, say your Microsoft Word program.
When you opened your Microsoft Word program, the virus
replicated and attached itself to other files. These could
be other random files on your hard drive, the files furthest
away from your Microsoft Word program, or other files,
depending on how the virus writer wanted the virus to
This virus code could contain hundreds or thousands of
instructions. When it replicates it inserts those instructions,
into the files it infects, said Carey Nachenberg, Chief
Architect at Symantec Research Labs, an arm of anti-virus
software-maker Symantec. Corp.
Because so many other types of viruses exist now, the
kind just described is called a classic virus. Classic
viruses still exist but theyre not quite as prevalent
as they used to be. (Perhaps we could put classic viruses
on the shelf with Hemingway and Dickens.)
These days, in the modern era, viruses are known to spread
through vulnerabilities in web browsers, files shared
over the internet, emails themselves, and computer networks.
As far as web browsers are concerned, Microsofts
Internet Explorer takes most of the heat for spreading
viruses because its used by more people for web
surfing than any other browser.
Nevertheless, Any web browser potentially has vulnerabilities,
For instance, lets say you go to a website in IE
you have every reason to think is safe, Nachenberg said.
But unfortunately it isnt. It has virus code hidden
in its background that IE isnt protecting you from.
While youre looking at the site, the virus is downloaded
onto your computer, he said. Thats one way of catching
a nasty virus.
During the past two years, another prevalent way to catch
a virus has been through downloads computer users share
with one another, mostly on music sharing sites, Kuo said.
On Limewire or Kazaa, for instance, teenagers or other
music enthusiasts might think theyre downloading
that latest Justin Timberlake song, when in reality theyre
downloading a virus straight into their computer. Its
easy for a virus writer to put a download with a virus
on one of these sites because everyones sharing
with everyone else anyway.
Heres one you might not have thought of. If you
use Outlook or Outlook Express to send and receive email,
do you have a preview pane below your list of emails that
shows the contents of the email you have highlighted?
If so, you may be putting yourself at risk.
Some viruses, though a small percentage according to Nachenberg,
are inserted straight into emails themselves.
Forget opening the attachment. All you have to do is view
the email to potentially get a virus, Kuo added. For instance,
have you ever opened or viewed an email that states its
loading? Well, once everything is loaded,
a virus in the email might just load onto your computer.
So if I were you, Id click on View on the toolbar
in your Outlook or Outlook Express and close the preview
pane. (You have to click on View and then Layout in Outlook
On a network at work? You could get a virus that way.
Worms are viruses that come into your computer via networks,
Kuo said. They travel from machine to machine and, unlike,
the classic viruses, they attack the machine itself rather
than individual files.
Worms sit in your working memory, or RAM, Nachenberg said.
OK, so weve talked about how the viruses get into
a computer. How do they cause so much damage once theyre
Lets say youve caught a classic virus, one
that replicates and attacks various files on your computer.
Lets go back to the example of the virus that initially
infects your Microsoft Word program.
Well, it might eventually cause that program to crash,
Nachenberg said. It also might cause damage to your computer
as it looks for new targets to infect.
This process of infecting targets and looking for new
ones could eventually use up your computers ability
to function, he said.
Often the destruction a virus causes is pegged to a certain
event or date and time, called a trigger. For instance,
a virus could be programmed to lay dormant until January
28. When that date rolls around, though, it may be programmed
to do something as innocuous but annoying as splash popups
on your screen, or something as severe as reformat your
computers hard drive, Nachenberg said.
There are other potential reasons, though, for a virus
to cause your computer to be acting slow or in weird ways.
And that leads us to a new segment the reason virus
writers would want to waste their time creating viruses
in the first place.
The majority of viruses are still written by teenagers
looking for some notoriety, Nachenberg said. But a growing
segment of the virus-writing population has other intentions
For these other intentions, we first need to explain the
The sole purpose of some viruses is to create a vulnerability
in your computer. Once it creates this hole of sorts,
or backdoor, it signals home to mama or dada virus writer
(kind of like in E.T.). Once the virus writer receives
the signal, they can use and abuse your computer to their
Trojans are sometimes used to open backdoors. In fact
that is usually their sole purpose, Kuo said.
Trojans are pieces of code you might download onto your
computer, say, from a newsgroup. As in the Trojan War
they are named after, they are usually disguised as innocuous
pieces of code. But Trojans arent considered viruses
because they dont replicate.
Now back to the real viruses. Lets say we have Joe
Shmo virus writer. He sends out a virus that ends up infecting
a thousand machines. But he doesnt want the feds
on his case. So he instructs the viruses on the various
machines to send their signals, not of course to his computer,
but to a place that cant be traced. Hotmail email
happens to be an example of one such place, Kuo said.
OK, so the virus writers now control these computers.
What will they use them for?
One use is to send spam. Once that backdoor is open, they
bounce spam off of those computers and send it to other
machines, Nachenberg said.
Thats right. Some spam you have in your email right
now may have been originally sent to other innocent computers
before it came to yours so that it could remain in disguise.
If the authorities could track down the original senders
of spam, they could crack down on spam itself. Spam senders
dont want that.
Ever heard of phishing emails? Those are the ones that
purport to be from your internet service provider or bank.
They typically request some information from you, like
your credit card number. The problem is, theyre
NOT from your internet service provider or your bank.
Theyre from evil people after your credit card number!
Well, these emails are often sent the same way spam is
sent, by sending them via innocent computers.
Of course makers of anti-virus software use a variety
of methods to combat the onslaught of viruses. Norton,
for instance, uses signature scanning, Nachenberg said.
Signature scanning is similar to the process of looking
for DNA fingerprints, he said. Norton examines programming
code to find what viruses are made of. It adds those bad
instructions it finds to its large database of other bad
code. Then it uses this vast database to seek out and
match the code in it with similar code in your computer.
When it finds such virus code, it lets you know!
©2004 by Kara Glover
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About The Author
Kara Glover is a Computer Tutor and Troubleshooter. You
can find her articles and tutorials on topics such as
Microsoft Word®, Excel®, and PowerPoint® on
her website: http://www.karathecomputertutor.com