Computer viruses are called viruses because they share some of the traits of biological viruses. A computer virus passes from computer to computer like a biological virus passes from person to person.
There are similarities at a deeper level, as well. A biological virus is not a living thing. A virus is a fragment of DNA inside a protective jacket. Unlike a cell, a virus has no way to do anything or to reproduce by itself — it is not alive. Instead, a biological virus must inject its DNA into a cell. The viral DNA then uses the cell’s existing machinery to reproduce itself. In some cases, the cell fills with new viral particles until it bursts, releasing the virus. In other cases, the new virus particles bud off the cell one at a time, and the cell remains alive.
A computer virus shares some of these traits. A computer virus must piggyback on top of some other program or document in order to get executed. Once it is running, it is then able to infect other programs or documents. Obviously, the analogy between computer and biological viruses stretches things a bit, but there are enough similarities that the name sticks.
Types of Infection
When you listen to the news, you hear about many different forms of electronic infection. The most common are:
• Viruses – A virus is a small piece of software that piggybacks on real programs. For example, a virus might attach itself to a program such as a spreadsheet program. Each time the spreadsheet program runs, the virus runs, too, and it has the chance to reproduce (by attaching to other programs) or wreak havoc.
• E-mail viruses – An e-mail virus moves around in e-mail messages, and usually replicates itself by automatically mailing itself to dozens of people in the victim’s e-mail address book.
• Worms – A worm is a small piece of software that uses computer networks and security holes to replicate itself. A copy of the worm scans the network for another machine that has a specific security hole. It copies itself to the new machine using the security hole, and then starts replicating from there, as well.
• Trojan horses – A Trojan horse is simply a computer program. The program claims to do one thing (it may claim to be a game) but instead does damage when you run. Trojan horses have no way to replicate automatically.
What’s a “Worm”?
A worm is a computer program that has the ability to copy itself from machine to machine. Worms normally move around and infect other machines through computer networks. Using a network, a worm can expand from a single copy incredibly quickly. For example, the Code Red worm replicated itself over 250,000 times in approximately nine hours on July 19, 2001.
A worm usually exploits some sort of security hole in a piece of software or the operating system. For example, the Slammer worm (which caused mayhem in January 2003) exploited a hole in Microsoft’s SQL server.
How They Spread
Early viruses were pieces of code attached to a common program like a popular game or a popular word processor. A person might download an infected game from a bulletin board and run it. A virus like this is a small piece of code embedded in a larger, legitimate program. Any virus is designed to run first when the legitimate program gets executed. The virus loads itself into memory and looks around to see if it can find any other programs on the disk. If it can find one, it modifies it to add the virus’s code to the unsuspecting program. Then the virus launches the “real program.” The user really has no way to know that the virus ever ran. Unfortunately, the virus has now reproduced itself, so two programs are infected. The next time either of those programs gets executed, they infect other programs, and the cycle continues.