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November 18, 2005

DIY: Understanding PC Viruses - How they Operate!

Today's "How to" article courtesy of English-blog contributor Terrell W.:

No Cure for This Disease: How a Computer Virus Works

In today’s society, the computer has become a staple of the American lifestyle. Nearly every American household has a computer, and the Internet has become the biggest means of communication in the world. However, despite this technology, there are drawbacks to the use of the computer. One of these drawbacks comes in the form of a computer “virus”, which is a type of program that can significantly affect how a computer operates. Similar to a medical disease (such as AIDS), a computer virus can grow to epidemic proportions if nothing is done to stop its progress. But most people do not understand exactly how a computer virus works. The following explains the steps involved in creating a virus and how it affects computers . . .

. . . In order for a computer virus to work, it has to be created first. Unlike biological diseases, computer viruses are created strictly by humans, with the intent to wreak technological havoc. A lot of thought must go into the creation of a virus, as the person (or persons) creating the virus must make sure that it will do exactly what they want it to do. Viruses are often created to cause random damage on as many computers as possible, but some are created to target specific people or places (such as a large company, for example).

Once the virus is created, it has to be released into the technological world. At this point in time, the virus can take on one of several different forms. Each form of virus has their own unique way of spreading and multiplying. The traditional computer virus spreads by attaching itself to a program stored on a computer (for example, Microsoft Word). Once the virus has attached itself, it waits until that particular program is run by the user. Whenever that program is used, the virus will also run. At that point in time, the virus will begin causing damage to the computer (which often goes unnoticed in the beginning), but it also can attach itself to other programs that are stored on the computer. This is where a virus becomes dangerous, even more than it already is. If the virus attaches itself to other programs, then whenever those programs are used, the virus will also execute as well, potentially causing major problems. However, as mentioned before, the traditional virus is only one of several types of viruses.

Another type of virus, and one that is becoming more and more common, is the infamous e-mail virus. As the name implies, these viruses are spread through the use of e-mail. This type of virus is probably the most dangerous one of all, because of its ability to latch on to e-mails and duplicate itself with alarming speed. The e-mail virus works by attaching itself on an e-mail being sent out to a user. Some e-mails have attachments that must be downloaded in order for the virus to infect the computer. Other e-mail virus can be obtained simply by opening the e-mail. Often, the virus will send itself from the e-mail address of a person that is known to the user. The user sees the familiar name, and assumes that the e-mail is safe. Once the virus has infected a computer, it then sends itself to another unsuspecting user.

One other type of virus is called a Trojan horse. This is a virus that is disguised as an innocent looking program. The program basically claims to do one thing when it really does something else. When this program is executed, the virus will then do the exact opposite of what it initially claimed, and will proceed to cause damage to the computer.

No matter what type of virus is involved, they all have the same intentions: damage as many computers as possible. Once a virus has infected a computer, it can proceed to do any number of horrible things. For example, some viruses can be spyware, which would enable a user from a remote location to gain access to the computer and do as they please. Other viruses can go as far as deleting the entire hard drive of a computer, forcing the user to purchase a new operating system, or at worst, a brand new computer.

Computer viruses are one of the biggest threats to technology today, and if created correctly, they can cause major damage to the business world. However, most people fail to realize how a virus actually works, or even how simple they turn out to me. However, being educated on the process of a computer virus’s operation can enable people to not only learn something new, but also be one step ahead in learning how to protect their computers from these dangerous programs.

~Terrell W.

*NOTE: For more English-Blog DIY or "How to . . ." articles, please click HERE!

Comments for Terrell's article "No Cure for This Disease: How a Computer Virus Works?" Please leave them below:

Posted by lhobbs at November 18, 2005 11:59 PM

Readers' Comments:

Terrell and Professor Hobbs,

The original title of this essay by Terrell W.—“No Cure for This Disease: How a Computer Virus Works”—is a bit of a misnomer. Terrell begins by explaining the birth of a computer virus; it’s engineered by an experienced computer user and unleashed on a target system. However, as he continues, the article describes what a virus does, not how it works. That is to say, particular details are left unanswered and each step is narrated with statements like, “Next, it does this…” rather than, “This is accomplished by…” or, “To do this, it must…”. However, the entire process is well documented and leaves even technology illiterate readers with a good understanding of how computer viruses operate, which broadens the effective target audience.

“Understanding PC Viruses” classifies computer viruses into three different groups, making this daunting technological subject easy to swallow. While the lack of technical details and simplified classifications and explanations of viruses makes the article easy to read, it also makes it a bit uninformative and uninterested, particularly to those who already have a fundamental understanding of the subject. Some more specific information could have been included in a subtle manner to expand the knowledgebase of the writing while not intimidating weary readers who are unfamiliar with computers.

Terrell’s article is empowering in that it gives readers some basic but very important information about how certain types of viruses actually get into their computer. The paragraph that discusses e-mail viruses was particularly useful and made a necessary note about a critical modern epidemic that computer users need to be aware of. Terrell’s diction was a bit weak in this section though, and certain redundant overuses of terms such as “attaches” and “attachment” became difficult to understand and differentiate. Because he gave the term no introduction, some readers may be left starring blankly before they realize what an e-mail attachment is and the stark difference between it and the process involved with a virus “attaching” itself to a file, message, or other digital entity.

“Understanding PC Viruses”’ paragraph about Trojan viruses should have been given more attention. Today, these are one of the most common threats to computer users, especially on moderate networks. Terrell’s description was nebulous and even a tad inaccurate. Still, it was wisely included in the article and gives the audience a picture of what a Trojan virus actually does; this is somewhat of a computer buzzword that many people have heard but have no clue what it means.

One thing that was only very briefly described in Terrell’s article was the damage that viruses do. The word “damage” comes up throughout the writing without any explanation or summary of what it could actually mean for a user with an infected system. At the end of the article, Terrell mentions some possible (but admittedly rare) disastrous effects that a virus can cause on a host machine, but he doesn’t tie these symptoms to actual examples such as his three classes of viruses. What type of virus will do what? Is that common?

“No Cure for This Disease: How a Computer Virus Works” is certainly a well-thought-out article. It could be clearer, but it gets the idea across to even a novice. One possible addition that could enrich Terrell’s article is a list of tools, suggestions, or steps for preventing infection, removing certain viruses, and seeing if a system is infected. This writing is insightful and informative, and I’d suggest it to anyone who wants to get the basics on viruses.

Sean O.

Posted by: Sean O. at April 10, 2006 01:53 PM

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