Virus and Malware
What is a virus? What is malware? What is the difference?
A computer virus is a program designed to replicate within a computer system, either corrupting or destroying the system or the data it contains. On the other hand, malware is a blanket term for several types of malicious programs, including ransomware, spyware, Trojans and viruses.
Do I still need anti-virus?
The short answer to this question is: Yes! Viruses, while considered a "legacy threat," are still a risk to computer users, especially those who operate older computers which no longer receive security updates from their manufacturers.
While computer viruses have decreased in prevalence over the past decade, the risk of other malware has increased considerably. While the destruction and corruption of data is still seen in the internet of today, it is not the only aim of cybercriminals and malicious hackers.
What kind of anti-virus tool should I use?
If your computer operates Windows Vista or later (Windows 7, 8, 8.1, & 10), Microsoft has bundled a free anti-virus tool (Microsoft Security Essentials for Vista and 7, Windows Defender for 8-10). Beyond this free tool, there are several paid anti-virus suites which have scored well in testing.
The best anti-virus suites will:
Offer the ability to schedule regular scans
Automatically upgrade their virus recognition files
Provide some form of malware scanning
Provide additional services like vulnerability scanning, anti-exploit protection, and firewall services
But I have a Mac. I thought Macs don't get viruses?
Computer viruses were initially written with the intent of causing the maximum amount of damage. For this reason, the majority of early viruses were written to attack a Windows-based infrastructure, since Windows computers significantly outnumbered Macs. Unfortunately, this spawned a myth that Macs don't get viruses.
While the design of MacOS includes safeguards to prevent viruses from taking hold, there are documented cases of cybercriminals exploiting flaws to sneak viruses past Apple's security measures. For this reason, it is recommended that users install anti-virus tools in some form (there are decent free options for MacOS) and definitely anti-malware.
While most major anti-virus suites include some form of malware scanning, a dedicated anti-malware tool is just as important as anti-virus. The best anti-malware tool will offer real-time and scheduled scanning, automatic updates, and additional tools like website scanning and automatic threat removal.
Malware has the potential to attack both Windows and MacOS hardware. In the case of MacOS, malware will attempt to exploit a vulnerability in an installed program, bypassing the security measures in Apple's design. For this reason, it is recommended that, just like anti-virus, Mac users employ some form of anti-malware on their systems.
Use these tips to protect your computer:
Anti-virus and anti-malware are not the only tools to protect your computer from threats. Beyond installing these programs, and keeping them updated, all computer users should:
Install security patches issued by software providers as they are released. Apple and Microsoft both offer the ability to automate this process, automatically installing updates as they are released.
Ensure that they do not use outdated operating systems that no longer receive updated security patches.
Never grant remote access to "tech support" firms calling you out of the blue. These scammers walk you through opening up your computer's defenses to allow them in, and can cause considerable damage. If you have security questions or require assistance, contact your anti-virus/anti-malware provider directly.
Practice safe web browsing and email habits. Be on the lookout for potential phishing emails; these emails can contain malware. Even though you may have security software, it is better to keep malware off your computer all together!
When visiting sensitive websites, check the connection is secure by:
Verifying that the web address begins with "HTTPS" instead of "HTTP"
Looking for the padlock icon, indicating a secure connection
Use strong, unique passwords for each website. Instead of writing down passwords, use a password manager or password vault, which can generate truly random passwords and store them in an encrypted state.
Public Wi-Fi is a major convenience in today's connected world. It helps users avoid data overages on mobile devices and allows users to join the internet in countless locations. However, public Wi-Fi hotspots are not safe locations to perform sensitive tasks, like Online Banking or online shopping.
What Risks Come With Public Wi-Fi?
Most public Wi-Fi networks are open networks, meaning they do not employ any form of wireless encryption. Anybody can join the network at any time, as long as they are within range of the access point. Because the network is unencrypted, data sent between your computer and the access point can be read by cybercriminals and potentially exploited. This includes everything from emails to passwords to credit card numbers. Another risk of public Wi-Fi is the spread of malware.
How to Stay Safe on Public Wi-Fi
Never use public Wi-Fi to access or transmit sensitive information.
Make sure you are connecting to the right network! The list of networks may say "Free Wi-Fi!", but it may be a rogue network. Most establishments post the name of their Wi-Fi network, along with connection information, in an easy to spot area. Check with the staff to make sure you aren't logging on to the wrong network.
Turn off file sharing in System Preferences (MacOS) or the Control Panel (Windows). This will reduce the chance of a criminal accessing your shared files or attempting to plant malware on your computer. Windows will automatically disable file sharing on wireless networks you classify as public.
Even if you had to enter a password to access the network, don't assume the network is secure for sensitive tasks. You are still accessing the internet via a public network and relying on that network owner's equipment and infrastructure. You have no way of knowing if the owner has taken proper security precautions, or if someone else on the network is attempting to intercept network traffic.
If you need to access sensitive information on the go, use a mobile device's mobile data connection (turn off the Wi-Fi first). Additionally, make sure you only download mobile apps from official sources, such as Apple's App Store and Google Play.