Understanding Security Threats

When people talk about security threats in personal computers, they're generally referring to viruses, worms, and spyware:

• A virus is a program that can copy itself, usually by attaching itself to another object. Infections spread when an infected file is transferred to another computer over a network, over the internet, or on removable media, and then executed on the target computer. In addition to their all-important reproductive capability, viruses are typically written to destroy or corrupt data files, wipe out installed programs, or damage the operating system itself.

• A worm is a program that replicates by copying itself from one computer on a network to another. Many modern worms also contain virus code that can damage data, consume so many system resources that they render the operating system unusable, or install a "backdoor" that lets a worm author remotely control the infected computer.

• Spyware is a term that has been applied to a variety of unwanted programs, including advertiser-sponsored software that tracks a user's web surfing habits, programs that display pop-up ads, programs that redirect Internet Explorer to a search engine or home page that's different from the one you specify, and more. For the purposes of this chapter, our definition of spyware is "any program that is installed without the user's full and informed consent, often through deceptive means, and that displays advertising, records personal information, or changes a computer's configuration without the user's explicit permission ."

Collectively, viruses, worms, and spyware in all their forms are often called malware. The most pernicious form of malware acts as a stealth server that allows intruders to take control of a remote computer without the owner's knowledge. Such a program can be used to monitor users' activities and to capture account numbers and passwords for financial accounts, which are subsequently cleaned out. Computers that have been taken over by other forms of malware are sometimes referred to as zombies or bots (short for robots). Armies of these zombies, called botnets, can be used to launch crippling attacks against websites, to send spam without revealing the true sender's address, and to propagate themselves

The Microsoft Malware Protection Center issues a twice-yearly report on the changing threat landscape, using data from hundreds of millions of Windows users and other sources. You can read the latest Microsoft Security Intelligence Report at w7io.com/1501.

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