The Home Computer Security Glossary

Posted by: Rea Maor In: Security and Prevention - Thursday, July 31st, 2008

We geeks are so comfortable batting around those techie terms, we often get accused of having a blind spot: not explaining what those terms mean. Especially to the common home user, who is definitely not a geek but just wants to surf the web in peace. And yet, conversely, it is the common home user who is most at risk, frequently targeted for attack by the ne’erdowells of the web.

So here, a little jargon list about computer security, just for the people who need the jargon-free “elevator pitch”.

First, the Big Three categories:

  • Virus – A nasty program whose mission in life is to spread itself and infect as many computers as it can. The difference with a virus is, it uses another program to reproduce. Just like a flu infects cells in the body to make more flu viruses, a computer virus cannot spread on its own.
  • Worm – So what’s a worm? Another nasty program that spreads itself and tried to infect as many… wait a minute, didn’t we just do this? Well, no. The difference between a worm and a virus is that a worm can spread itself without using any other program.
  • Trojan – This is another kind of dirty program, which appears to be clean program. It might do something essential when you use it, but it’s misbehaving in the background. The name comes from the legendary Trojan horse, which pretended to be a gift but was full of soldiers ready to conquer the city from the inside. Another difference is that trojans do not reproduce. Instead, a virus or worm might plant them, or they might be mistakenly downloaded.

So, every kind of computer program which can infect your system breaks down into one of these three types. Now we need to know what these things do:

Payload – is the term for whatever malicious function the bad program does once it’s in there. That might be spying on you, stealing hard drive space to host malicious software, turning your PC into somebody else’s slave, nuking your system, crashing a network… whatever. So, here are some terms having to do with payloads:

  • Spyware – Software that spies on you. It might be the payload of a virus, trojan, or worm. The idea is that it secretly listens to your system, recording goodies like credit card numbers and passwords, which it then relays back to somebody like an identity thief.
  • Adware – The whole idea of adware is to force advertising on you. Trojans and adware go together like bread and butter. If you’ve downloaded a free program which makes constant popups on your desktop and tried to take over your system, you’re got some adware from a trojan.
  • Backdoor – A backdoor is where your computer’s security was broken to allow later access. Just like if somebody made a secret tunnel into your house past all your locked doors! A typical kind of backdoor is a “rootkit” – which is very hard to detect and installs itself as having “root” – or highest system authority – on the system. Can be the payload of a virus, worm, or trojan.
  • Bot – A bot – short for ‘robot’ – is a computer which has been infected by any means in such a way as to leave it in somebody else’s control. Typically, a computer ‘bot’ tried to show no evidence of infection to the user, but is secretly using ports, chats, or emails to communicate with its “true master”. This is where most of the spam comes from.
  • Bot Herder – The person in charge of the bots. May link them together into a “botnet” and sell their services to spammers, identity thieves, and other goons around the web.

When you put them all together, we collectively call the malware, which stands for “malicious software”.

Just to throw it in for clarity, phishing is not part of the malware family tree. In phishing, the perpetrator sends an email which pretends to be from your bank, but actually links to the bad guy’s site. there they steal your credit card information, for instance. Or they could infect you with a virus while you’re there!

There, now, isn’t that clearer than everybody else explains it?


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