What is the difference between malware and a virus?
The terms virus and malware are often used interchangeably as if they are the same thing. However, they are different. A virus is a type of malware, but only one type, there are many others. Viruses have very specific traits that are not shared by other forms of malware. Here, we’ll tell you the differences and give you tips for malware and virus protection.
What is a virus?
A virus is a type of malware that self-replicates and spreads from computer to computer. It can spread over a network or via shared storage media. Before the web and email, viruses were commonly spread by floppy disks that were used in multiple computers. The key feature of a virus is that it replicates by attaching itself to another file or program, the host. One of the early popular hosts for viruses were Word macros. If a virus attached itself to a macro used in a document, it would spread to every computer on which the document was opened.
What is malware?
Malware is a catch-all name for code that is designed to harm a system either by damaging the software on the system, stealing data, displaying adverts or attempting to extract money from the user. When it comes to protection, malware and virus cleaners are available. We’ll tell you about our favorite later in the article. First, it’s useful to know more about the differences between malware and viruses. A virus is a type of malware, but it is only one of several. Here are some more.
Adware is installed on a system without the user’s knowledge or permission, usually because the user has downloaded and installed software that has the adware bundled with it.
Once installed, the adware displays adverts on the user's computer. It also gathers data about the user’s browsing habits and activity and uses that to determine what adverts to display. The purpose of adware is to generate revenue by persuading users to click on the adverts. A secondary purpose may be to collect data on the user.
While adware doesn’t do any damage to the host computer, it can slow it down and cause other performance issues, as well as being a nuisance.
Spyware is more malicious than adware. Its purpose is to spy on you and gain as much data about you as possible. Spyware can take a number of different forms and gathers data in different ways, such as:
- Keylogging – this type of spyware records the keystrokes you make in order to try and access login names and passwords for accounts you use on your Mac. Once the hacker has these details, they can log in and, depending on the account, steal money from you. Two-factor authentication is a solid defense against this kind of attack since it means that having your username and password alone isn’t enough to access your account.
- Browser hijackers – this spyware redirects your browser’s homepage and preferred search engine to a page run by the hackers. The objective is to gather information about you as you browser the web, but it can also be used to steal personal data when you fill in forms online.
- Webcam hacking – when this kind of spyware is installed, malicious actors are able to take control of your webcam and microphone and use it to spy on you.
In macOS Catalina, Apple introduced safeguards against spyware by forcing any program that wants to record keystrokes, your screen, images from your webcam or audio from your mic to explicitly request permission first.
Often abbreviated to Trojan, a Trojan Horse is a type of malware that hides inside an apparently legitimate application, in the same way the Greeks concealed themselves inside a wooden horse to enter Troy. Once installed, the malware can disrupt your Mac in a number of different ways, including stealing data or taking over resources.
This relatively new type of malware steals resources like CPU cycles and memory to mine for cryptocurrency. Cryptocurrency is generated by ‘mining’ – solving increasingly complex cryptographic puzzles. And the kind of server farms needed to generate lots of it are very expensive. So, hackers use your computer instead. The proceeds from the mining are sent to the hacker.
A worm is a type of virus that spreads by itself. Unlike a virus, it doesn’t attach itself to a host file or program, instead exploiting a specific vulnerability in a network in order to wriggle through that network and attack systems connected to it.
Ransomware, once installed, does one of two things: steal data or restrict access to your computer or files on it. The hacker then demands a ransom in order to remove the ransomware and enable full access to your computer, or return the stolen data. One form of ransomware claims to have stolen webcam images of computer users while they visit porn sites. In this case, the hacker hasn’t gained access to the system or stolen images, but is using the threat and users’ fear of having images made public (even though such images don’t exist) to extort money from them. Of course, as with any ransom, paying up doesn’t make the hacker leave you alone — it merely marks you as vulnerable and makes you a target for further ransomware attacks.
Browser hijackers are typically downloaded as part of a software 'bundle’, where download sites package up other apps, along with the one you chose to download. They usually reset your homepage and default search engine and sometimes install toolbars too. Often, they re-direct you to sites that claim to offer discount coupons in and effort to persuade you to click on adverts.
As you can see, there are lots of different types of malware, and a virus is only one. In the wider PC world, viruses are a threat because they can self-replicate, and so don’t rely on a user downloading them. However, on the Mac, viruses are much less common. The other types of malware are more common on the Mac, and while very few will do real harm, they are a nuisance. Malware consumes resources, steals data, and can trick you into giving up financial details or buying software you don’t need.
Fortunately, checking your Mac for malware and getting rid of any that’s there is very simple. There are a number of excellent anti-malware tools available. My favorite is CleanMyMac X. It’s easy to use, has a regularly updated database of malware, and can be set to continually check in the background. Here’s how to use it.
How to remove viruses and malware with CleanMyMac X.
- Install, and launch CleanMyMac X — download its free edition here
- Choose the Malware Removal tool in the sidebar.
- Press Scan.
- Hopefully CleanMyMac won’t find anything, but if it does, press Remove to get rid of it.
Here’s how to set CleanMyMac X to scan your Mac for malware automatically while you work.
- Click on the CleanMyMac menu in the menu bar.
- Choose Preferences
- Click on the Protection tab.
- Check the box to turn on real-time protection.
- Close Preferences.
You can now quit CleanMyMac and it will continue to protect your Mac.
As you can see, there are lots of different types of malware, and a virus is only one. However, whichever malware you are worried about, CleanMyMac X can scan your Mac regularly and keep you protected.