Technical Terms: Virus and Malware

People often use the term Virus when what they really should be saying is Malware. A computer virus is a very dangerous type of malware that can spread from computer to computer on its own. Malware is a more general term that can be correctly used to describe viruses, trojan horses, adware, spyware and more. It is better to use the term Malware unless you know for a fact that the problem is a virus.
Video Transcript / Captions
Closed captioning for this video is available on YouTube: Technical Terms: Virus and Malware.

So let's take a look at two computer terms that people use interchangeably but they shouldn't. The first term is virus. People use this term, anytime really, they feel they've installed some sort of bad software on their computer. They'll say, I have a virus, or I installed a virus, or I suspect maybe there's a virus on my Mac or PC or whatever. Virus is almost never the correct term to use here. It's very specific. The term that people are looking for, and should be using, is malware. Particularly if you're into computer security you want to make sure you have the right term here and it is very annoying to people that are in security for somebody to go and say I have a virus but what they really mean is malware. So what's the difference between the two.

Well, a virus is pretty serious. It's something that you can get on your computer with no direct action on your part. So you're not doing anything on your computer and you can get this virus. Now viruses are very rare today. The reason they're rare is because operating systems, both Mac OS and Windows and other systems, other linux type systems, are very good at protecting themselves against this kind of thing. A lot of the big holes that allowed viruses to spread ten, twenty years ago don't exist anymore. Viruses are kind of rare. But the big thing is for it to be a virus it really has to spread on its own. So you can install something that then gives you a virus and then what happens is it spreads to other computers in your network that there's no direct action taken by those users either. So viruses spread on their own.

On the other hand malware is a general term. It describes any type of software that's bad for your computer and unwanted. So that does include viruses. Viruses are a very serious kind of malware. But most of the time when somebody is having trouble it's not a virus that they've got. What the've actually got is something called a trojan horse or just a trojan. But we don't use this term much. It's perfectly okay just to say malware. Especially if you're not into security and you don't really know all the details just say malware and it covers it all.

But a trojan type malware is something where you actually installed the software. Now you were probably tricked into doing this. You probably saw a download of something you needed and maybe it was not from the actual developer. You've downloaded it. Maybe you even got the actual software that you wanted but something rode along with it and now you have a trojan horse, some malware, on your system. Sometimes you could download something that you shouldn't have trusted in the first place and that's also how you get a trojan.

But the difference is, between a virus and a trojan, is a trojan you have to take direct action to actually install it. Whereas a virus can be installed on your computer with no direct action on your own. That's why viruses are so much more dangerous. That's why you have to be careful when using the term virus. If you don't know security and you don't know what it is specifically, use the term malware and not the more serious term virus. It's like describing a gun as a nuclear weapon. It's much more serious. If you say somebody in your neighborhood owns a gun it probably is true. Somebody in your neighborhood owns a nuclear weapon, well that's a pretty serious matter.

Now there are other types of malware as well. Spyware is something that somebody else installs on your computer usually. Sometimes it's legitimate. Like a company that gives out computers or a school that gives out computers could include software that in someway checks what users are doing on those machines. Sometimes, of course, it's completely illegitimate. Somebody has gained access to your computer either physically or online and installed something on there.

Adware is probably the least serious kind because adware typically isn't about getting at your data or probably not even about your privacy or anything like that. It just wants to show you ads and earn money from those. You definitely want to get rid of it but it's nowhere near as serious as most malware.

Ransomware, of course, is the most serious. You hear about this. This affects really big corporate and government systems more so than individuals but it is possible for individuals to get this either as a virus or as a trojan horse. But it's much rarer. But definitely a serious kind.

So these are all terms that would all be covered by the blanket term malware. So the most important thing is to remember that a virus is a far more serious kind of malware than most things which are trojan horses. You want to use the term lightly. Describe unwanted software as malware and reserve the word virus only if you know that it actually is a computer virus.