A virus is a virus

By Charles Miller

I just lost an argument and I lost it fair and square. Several times in this column I have stated that Apple Computers encourage a campaign of false and misleading advertising by stating that “Macs don’t get PC viruses.” If you examine that claim from a strictly legalistic perspective, I admit it is technically a true statement. Macs don’t get PC viruses – Macs get Mac viruses!

When discussing the subject of computer viruses today, it is only a matter of time before somebody either expresses confusion over or gets pedantic about the correct usage of the word “virus.” It is difficult enough to discuss this technical subject of computer security, and for everyone to agree on the nature of the problem, without having the discussions derailed by specious quibbling over semantics.

In vernacular usage, the word “virus” has become a catchall for any and all kinds of malware, trojan, spyware, keystroke logger, root kit, exploit, worm, hijack, and yes, even viruses. Strictly speaking a computer virus is defined as an infection that is self-replicating. The “Elk Cloner” virus back in 1981 was such a virus, to be specific: it was an Apple virus. The recent Mac “virus” Flashback is technically a trojan or drive-by install and not a virus.

Among computer professionals it is most assuredly efficacious to refer to a specific infection as a 32-bit polymorphic executable infector if that is what it is, because it helps technicians and researchers converse efficiently. The opposite is true for the everyday computer user who could care less about laboratory terminology; they just want the unwanted “virus” that sneaked into their Mac or PC to go away.

While the word “virus” is commonly used and broadly applied, the word “malware” is yet another umbrella term encompassing the whole plethora of unwelcome and unwanted software that can infest your computer. Variations of the word “malware” run from self-descriptive to fanciful and are seemingly endless.

SpyWare is the term coined by the respected computer security expert Steve Gibson who first discovered it when it had sneaked into his computer. TrialWare or BundleWare as its name implies is software included when you buy something else such as a USB flash drive. BloatWare, JunkWare, UselessWare, and WasteWare usually are described as programs preinstalled on new computers in the hope you will try them and buy them. AdWare, SpamWare and SneakyWare should be self-explanatory. SnareWare is otherwise legitimate software that tries to coerce the user into paying. LeechWare, CrudWare, CrapWare, and SwearWare are some printable synonyms of %@#!Ware, the term used to describe invasive software that causes problems and can be hard to get rid of.

PUP (Potentially Unwanted Program) is the legalistic term used by antivirus program vendors in an attempt to avoid pejorative name calling.

In the secret documents leaked by whistleblower Edwin Snowden, the National Security Agency applies the word “implant” for the virus-like programs it has designed for surveillance purposes. I may try using that word for a while to see if it catches on.

Nitpicking and quibbling about distinctions between technical terms is a distraction and can be a danger when it results in not concentrating on the actual threats present from all of the bad software out there. Many of the threats that computer users face today defy categorization. The grammarians of the world need to chill out and let people use the word virus, badware, pup, or whatever.

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981 and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 044-415-101-8528 or email FAQ8 (at) SMAguru.com.


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