Viruses are larger-than-life leviathans. The media is to blame for the scale of their reputation, generally portrayed as these immensely powerful systems that can cripple entire nations at the push of a button. But are viruses really the computer equivalent of nuclear weapons? or more simply, what even are viruses?
Examining the Leviathan’s DNA
What is a virus? If you didn’t already know, this may be an anti-climax: they are tiny computer programs. How disappointing, right? Not really, they are actually really cool concepts, and many of the most successful ones used some innovative ways to survive and execute their Order 66 (Star Wars reference for the day: Check!).
At its core, a virus doesn’t differ that much from your average piece of software, besides the nefarious intentions. They are written and run like software, but that doesn’t make them so intimidating. Well, that isn’t the whole picture, we have still to discuss what they can do.
Capabilities of Viruses
Many of them are made with the aim at some kind of disruption. Some come in the form of Worms, which infect a system and duplicate themselves throughout the system, messing with the way it functions. Worms are by far the most common forms of virus, probably due to their basic functionality and ease of transmission. There have definitely been cases of more aggressive Worms spreading, but most of them can be guarded against with basic antivirus.
This is another term you may be familiar with. A Trojan Horse, as its name implies is a virus cleverly disguised as something else. Their trap-door nature means that they can spend ages inside a system without activating, until it is opened. Like most viruses, a Trojan Horse will run without you knowing – spreading behind the Graphic User Interface of your system. Only when a system slows to a crawl, or when the GUI starts to behave abnormally, would you start seeing the signs of infection.
Trojan Horses are particularly sticky creatures. Due to the fact that they can spread behind the scenes, when one does start to notice problems it may be too late. When an antivirus attempts to remove the virus, it could have worked its way so deep into your system that it may take something heftier than your standard free antivirus to do the job.
Now this, is a right little devil. Pretty new to the scene but highly effective. Ransomware as you may be aware, is a virus that infects a system, spreads and locks it down – preventing the user from using the computer. Now this may be bad, but it seems manageable, right? No. These little buggers add insult to injury, by actually ransoming your computer back to you. The virus is programmed to threaten the user with the deletion of all of their files, unless the user makes a payment (usually in Bitcoin) to the virus author. What cheek! And the most recent occurrence of this being the WannaCry virus that infected hundreds of thousands of computers. The best part is the way the virus was deactivated. Some random 22 year old developer found that the code depended on a certain domain address to be inactive for the virus to work. So he registered the domain name.
This is the big daddy, the king of all viruses that never actually managed to complete its mission – and thank goodness for that. This virus, of unknown origin, was created by an unknown organisation, and was aimed at creating havoc in the United States. ZeroDays is the name given to this virus because of a unique feature built into the code – the instruction to execute its purpose immediately (most viruses are instructed to wait a number of days before executing).
And that purpose, oh, only to bring every single coal power plant in the United States to its knees. Yeah, nothing major! ZeroDays functioned as follows: it was released onto the web with a the mission to find, infect and make misbehave a very specific device used in the pressure systems of power plants in the United States. Perhaps that is not the best way to describe it.. Lets try again. It was written with 12 essential pieces of code, bought from the Dark Web costing around $250,000 each, it was certified with the software license stolen from a Company in Asia, that kept that license in a vault underneath their headquarters, and it was programmed with the specific serial numbers of the devices installed in the power plants.
This is not a small-time attack, this is the closest thing the world has seen to CyberWarfare. A virus of this complexity, with that much funding, and with those intentions could do more damage than a nuke. Luckily for all of us, the virus was discovered, analysed, and reported upon before it got to do its job. Very luckily.
Viruses are not cool. Well, they’re cool in the sense that they are interesting. But they do a lot of damage. The WannaCry epidemic hurt a lot of people and threatened many more. There were even cases of hospital equipment being infected in the United Kingdom, hospital equipment! The very things keeping people alive, thats not cool. Not that they specifically meant target hospital equipment, it still makes one aware of the line between trolling and taking aim at something or someone and there being collateral damage. The ZeroDays virus is just in a league of its own. If that got to its targets, even to just one target of the many it was aiming at, total chaos. Something of that caliber has finally shown itself to be possible, and if it is possible, then it can be considered a guarantee that it will happen again. So do yourself a favour, get an antivirus program, even if it is a free one, and make sure your device is locked down. Additionally, we recommend an external hard drive so that you can backup your data to something that can not be infected without being plugged in. We won’t recommend any doomsday prepping, just yet anyway!