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Date of copyright: May 2005
The Difference Between Spyware and Viruses
by Kara Glover
Shin, a fictional character whose name means “faith” or “trust,” sits by his laptop in the living room of his home in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. He is busy at work for his boss, dictator Kim Jong-il. His job, to make sure some spyware gets into specific computers at the Pentagon so he can gain vital top secret information. He’s particularly interested now that the United States government suspects his country might soon conduct its first nuclear test.
With spyware surreptitiously installed on the computers, he could, for instance, engage in the practice of keylogging. In other words, our “trustworthy” Shin could tract the actual keys on the computer hit by the Pentagon officials. This would help him learn their passwords, the content of email messages, encryption keys, or other means to bypass security measures at our nation’s defense fortress. Shin’s not interested in crashing computers at the Pentagon or making them otherwise operable. That would be too overt and might reveal him. He’s simply after information.
There are other types of spyware, sometimes called “malware” because they don’t actually spy on your computer habits. They might instead just barrage you with annoying popups, for instance. Or they might give you a different home page that isn’t of your choosing, like one of an advertiser’s. But for the moment those types of malware, or adware as it’s sometimes called, aren’t very useful for Shin. He wants to use spyware that actually spies.
Over on another part of the globe in Turkey, a fictional terrorist sits with his own laptop in a suspected al Qaeda terrist cell. But he’s not out to infect computers with spyware. That’s child’s play. He’s out to bring the house down. This story is strictly hypothetical. But let’s say the terrorist wanted to disrupt the daily hubub at a major American corporation. He’d infect the computers with a virus!
The terrorist might try to attack the company’s vast network by inserting a worm into it. Worms reside in RAM, and travel from machine to machine and, unlike the classic viruses, they attack the computers themselves rather than individual files. Very disruptive. This type of virus could potentially make the computers inoperable.
Bring down the goings-on at a major corporation by spreading a worm through the computer network, and the terrorist could have a field day. But let’s hope not.
So to summarize, spyware often keeps track of your computer habits, and viruses are often out to disable computers in some way. Hence the difference.
©2005 by Kara Glover
About the author:
Kara Glover is a Computer Tutor and Troubleshooter. You
can find her online articles, tips, and tutorials on topics such as
Microsoft Word®, Excel®, and PowerPoint® at her website: