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Let's define it properly

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Thursday, November 8, 2018

It seems that certain topics can never be exhausted: no matter how much you talk about them, the questions keep coming.

The question “What is malware?” is one of those never-ending topics.

There exist a huge number of definitions of malware. Surprisingly none of them allows one to establish conclusively that a certain program is malicious.

Here are just a few definitions yielded by a quick search.

Any software attempting to infect a PC or a mobile device is malicious. Criminals use it for a variety of purposes including data and money theft and making the device inaccessible for its owner.

That one is far from perfect. "…attempting to infect a PC or a mobile device"—and what if it gets installed by a user who believes that they are dealing with a legitimate application? Besides, there is no way to compile a comprehensive list of things attackers may be after.

And what if the program in question merely collects information in a system without damaging it and downloads other malware after a while? Should this program be deleted before it gets installed, or should one wait until it downloads an additional payload and thus becomes malicious? And what if a program doesn't cause much damage but only changes certain settings (such as the browser home page)? Surely, no one can say that that causes much harm!

Malware includes any software that facilitates unauthorised access to a computer or information that is being stored on it and uses the computer without user consent or inflicts damage to the information's owner and/or computer's owner and/or the network’s owner by copying, modifying, or deleting data.

This one is better, but here we have a list again. What about blocking system access? It doesn't look like this definition covers it. And how about adware (provided that it doesn't modify the data in a system)? It causes no damage whatsoever!

The term malware is used to refer to any program causing harm on a PC, Mac, or mobile device.

And what if a malicious payload is stored in a separate library file or an image?

Some more precise definitions distinguish between malicious and unwanted software.

Malware includes a variety of programs that damage computers and mobile devices or cause harm to their users. Programs of this kind can install other software without user consent or infect a device with a virus.

Unwanted software includes executable files and applications that can be deceptive, have undocumented features, and affect PC or mobile device performance in a negative way. Programs of this kind can change browser settings such as the home page or forward personal user information to a third party.

But then how does unwanted software differ from malware? Programs from both categories interfere with the user experience and are neither needed nor wanted.

Just think about it: why do users need anti-viruses in the first place? Essentially, they just want their systems to operate like clockwork so that they don't need to install additional software and can prevent unwanted software from being installed. So basically they want anti-viruses to keep their computers intact.

And here's the definition that we've come up with:

Malicious software includes any software installed on personal computers and other devices without user consent as well as any software performing malicious actions or actions not described in the corresponding documentation.

That's not perfect either, but we hope that it’s close to being accurate.

Why have we been talking about this? Dr.Web 12.0 for Windows uses an entirely new approach to data protection, and now our anti-virus can insure the integrity of your information. We guarantee that no one will be able to gain access to it. Yes, that is beyond the scope of what anti-viruses usually do, but we are confident that people who choose Dr.Web will find the feature very useful.


The Anti-virus Times recommends

We quoted several definitions of malware and offered our own. We realise that it is by no means exhaustive. There exist many applications that can be used for both good and evil. So we invite our readers to give their own definition—or help us improve ours.


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