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What’s the Difference Between Malware, Computer Viruses, and Worms?

Malware, computer viruses, worms: these are some of the core terms that cause fear and panic. We’re always told to steer clear of dubious sites and downloads because getting a nasty computer bug can result in a host of disastrous outcomes; you can have your data erased or even leaked to the internet!

While there are numerous computer threats out there in the world, malware, viruses, and worms are the ones that we talk about more often. So what actually are they? What are the differences between them?

What Was the First Computer Virus?

The first computer viruses weren’t threats like today; they were experiments during the early days of computer technology. Back in 1971, an engineer at the technology company BBN Technologies developed a program that could self-replicate called “Creeper.”

This program was made to jump from different DEC PDP-10 machines running the Tenex operating system. Creeper would travel from computer to computer using the ARPANET and would display the message “I’M THE CREEPER: CATCH ME IF YOU CAN.”

It would replicate itself as it jumped to the next computer and attempt to delete itself from the previous one. Aside from being a minor inconvenience (and rather creepy), Creeper did not cause any harm to the systems.

Related: What are Macro Viruses? Can Windows Defender Protect You From Them?

What Is Malware?

We typically refer to malware, viruses, and worms as different entities, but here’s the deal: malware is an umbrella term. Malware refers to any type of malicious software that’s meant to wreak havoc on computers. This means that viruses and worms are different categories of malware.

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This means that the first computer viruses technically can’t be called malware because they were just harmless experiments. Even the 1986 virus called “Brain” isn’t malware, though it was the first to spread worldwide.

There are a lot of different types of malware and you may have heard of some of them. Trojans, ransomware, spyware, adware, scareware: the list goes on. There are even different types of malware that attack Android phones.

What’s the Difference Between Viruses and Worms?

This leaves us with viruses and worms. How are these two bits of sinister software different, and which one is the lesser of the two evils?

What Are Viruses?

Even though malware encompasses a wide variety of bad software, we tend to think of viruses as the umbrella term. We call any bit of malicious software that invades our computers a virus, but viruses have their own idiosyncrasies that make them uniquely terrible.

One of the main identifying factors with viruses is their ability to self-replicate; this is what made Creeper a virus. Much like biological viruses, computer viruses need to find a host to attach themselves to. They arrive on the computer attached to files, then find other files to infect.

A virus is activated when the user opens an infected document or runs an infected EXE file. Once the file is opened, the virus gets to work infecting other files and documents.

Related: The Most Notorious Malware Attacks of All Time

What Are Worms?

Worms are very similar to viruses in that they are capable of self-replicating; however, there are a few differences. Worms are more self-efficient than viruses. Worms, unlike viruses, don’t need host files to attach to. They are standalone programs that act on their own.

After a worm finds its spot on the hard drive or SSD, it can start making copies of its own accord. Instead of spreading from file to file, worms just make standalone copies of themselves.

How Can Viruses and Worms Cause Harm?

Now that we know what makes viruses and worms different, let’s talk about what makes them deadly. When someone (ie the hacker) plants unwanted software on your computer, it puts a lot of power in their hands, making them a puppet master to your device. Viruses and worms, when activated, can do some major damage to the user on many levels.

They can cause your computer to become uncharacteristically slow, but that’s on the less severe side of the spectrum. Since these programs multiply en masse, they start to take up more and more drive space. On older computers, some viruses would actually inflate files so much that the system was unable to even open them.

It gets worse, as viruses and worms can initiate unwanted actions on your computer. They can install programs, cause pop-ups throughout your system, even send emails to people from your email address to infect other computers.

Getting to the more serious effects, your personal data can be a virtual buffet to a virus or worm. Since the hacker has their fingers in your system, they can have access to any kind of information they want. They’ll be able to steal information like passwords, addresses, and banking information.

If that isn’t scary enough, viruses and worms can also stay there and just cause damage to or modify your system files. Much like rogue Minecraft players who destroy other people’s servers, viruses and worms can change or delete files on your system. You can easily log on one day and find important files and programs missing.

Having a virus can turn your entire world upside down depending on what you have on your computer, what type of virus or worm you get, and how the hacker wishes to ravage your data. Related: What You Need to Know About the Dridex Trojan Horse

How to Prevent Malware Attacks

Having any sort of malware attack is scary business. According to Clario, malware like ILOVEYOU and Sobig.F both caused billions of dollars in damages. It’s imperative you avoid getting infected with any sort of malware, but how do you go about doing that? Here are some basic security tips.

  • Stay away from dubious sites and emails: It’s never safe to connect to sites that aren’t trusted or seem shady. They could be riddled with files containing all sorts of malware. The same goes for emails; don’t open emails that aren’t from people or companies that you trust.
  • Be careful what you download: A big point of ingress for malware is through downloads. Don’t download files that aren’t from tested and certified websites.
  • Avoid torrenting: Torrenting isn’t only illegal—it’s a massive source of malware.
  • Get a trustworthy malware protection program: There’s a plethora of different anti-malware programs on the market that constantly monitor your computer and browser.

Different but the Same?

Whether it’s a virus or a worm, it’s still malware. Let’s face it, there are always going to be bad people who want to watch the world burn, and sometimes, they target your computers. This is why it’s important to know what these terms mean and what makes them different.


Sometimes, a bit of knowledge can mean a world of safety.


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