Are viruses and malware the same thing?

No. A virus is a type of malware, but not all malware is a virus

What are viruses? Viruses are pieces of computer code that infect programs that are otherwise legitimate and harmless. When the infected program is run, the virus executes. The virus might steal data, cause programming to execute that you wouldn’t want, stop programs from running, delete data, and infect other programs with itself. Viruses only operate from within other programs.

What is malware, then? Short for “malicious software” or “malevolent software”, malware is any type of software that does something you either don’t want it to do, or wouldn’t want it to do if you knew it was doing it.

I realise that that’s a bit of a generalisation. I don’t want Microsoft, Apple, Google etc spying on everything I do and where I go with my computers and phones, but most people would think it a bit of a stretch to label Google Search or Windows (for instance) as malware. Nevertheless, I would argue that you could put up a pretty good case for saying that they are indeed malware as they are certainly less than transparent about what they do, let alone co-operative in allowing you to prevent them from doing it.

Microsoft Defender Logo
I’ve gone back to Microsoft Defender for my antivirus. Click on image to see last blog post.

A lot of malware doesn’t operate in the same way as a virus. For instance, a “trojan” is a malicious program that, on the surface, offers something useful. Whether or not it does the “something useful”, it also does other things that you may not be aware of – such as stealing your data or stealing the use of your internet connection. That is how so much email spam gets circulated. Computers that have been infected with malware (such as that hidden in a trojan), can send spam from the infected computer as directed by a remote computer. If your internet connection appears to have slowed down inexplicably, then one of the things that needs to be investigated is whether there is malware present that is “hijacking” your internet connection in this way.

Antivirus programs were originally developed to recognise the malevolent code that had been injected into computer programs. As such, antivirus programs might not recognise program code that does something malicious but which does not bear the hallmarks of a “virus”.

Spybot logo
Spybot used to be the leading antimalware program

As a result, “antimalware” programs were developed to detect and remove this other type of malicious/malevolent behaviour. Probably the best one for many years was Spybot. This has been usurped in recent years by Malwarebytes. The free version of Malwarebytes does not run in real time. It only looks for malware when you run a scan. The paid version does run in real time and also takes over as your antivirus program.

Malwarebytes logo
Malwarebytes is now the leading antimalware software

Not only do we now have antimalware programs as well as antivirus programs but other parts of the system now increasingly concern themselves with the overall security of the system. Thus, computer browsers now have inbuilt security. Operating systems are also far more secure than they used to be (so, if you are still using Windows XP on the internet, STOP IT – it’s not safe).

This may be a bit of an over-simplification, but, to be reasonably safe from both viruses and other malicious threats out there (as well as the vagaries of chance, accidents, and human and mechanical failure), these days you need to consider all the following aspects of your computer environment in order to feel reasonably confident that you’ve got most of the threats covered:

  • Antivirus protection – automatically updating to take care of the latest threats
  • Antimalware protection – at least installed and ready to run when needed
  • A current operating system with the latest updates – not Windows XP, and preferably not Windows 7 either
  • A current browser with the latest updates (do NOT use Internet Explorer)
  • A backup regime where you understand the risks that you are still running even with that regime. No backup regime is perfect, but it’s easy to have the tail wagging the dog by getting over-complicated and over-solicitous with backups. An informed view of your backup practices is advised, so that you are taking care of what is important to you

As usual, I’m mainly considering Window computers here. Just in case you are a Mac user, be aware that your computer is not invulnerable (despite what many Mac users seem to think). You can still fall for scams and pick up nasty things from the internet. Having said that, I don’t bother with antivirus on my (rarely used) Macbook Air and only occasionally run Malwarebytes on it. Neither do I bother on my iPad, Android tablet, or iPhone. But these are my own decisions – as your decisions are your own.