Dangers of computer viruses

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The Dangers of Computer Viruses

Not a month goes by without another big-time virus scare. Tens of millions of computers are infected by computer viruses every year. In 2001, 2.3 million computers were infected by the SirCam virus, and another million computers were hit by CodeRed. Even worse, the LoveLetter virus hit an estimated 45 million computers—on a single day in 2000.

ICSA Labs a leading provider of security research, intelligence, and certification, found that the rate of virus infection in North America in 2001 was 113 infections per 1000 computers—meaning that more than 10% of all computers they surveyed had been hit

by a virus. And this rate is increasing; ICSA says that the likelihood of contracting a computer virus has doubled for each of the past five years.

Viruses hit the corporate world especially hard; a single infected computer can spread the

virus among the entire corporate network. A company specializing  in virus protection, estimates that two-third of U.S. companies are attacked by viruses each year. A third of those companies reported that viruses knocked out their servers for an average of 5.8 hours per infection, and 46% of the companies required more than 19 days to completely

recover from the virus incident.

These incidents come with a heavy cost. The research firm Computer Economics estimates that companies spent $10.7 billion to recover from virus.

attacks in 2001. Technology magazine The Industry Standard (www.thestandard.com) puts the cost much higher, at upwards of $266 billion. Whatever the real number, it's clear that computer viruses are costly to all concerned—in terms of both money and the time required to clean up after them.

 Understanding Computer Viruses

Just look at the costs inflicted by individual viruses. For example, Computer Economics estimates that the Nimda virus alone cost companies $590 million in cleanup costs; CodeRed and LoveLetter were even more costly, running up costs of $2.6 billion apiece.

To an individual company, these costs can be staggering. ICSA Labs estimates that virus

cleanup costs large companies anywhere from $100,000 to $1 million each per year.

That's real money.

Unfortunately, this problem doesn't look like it's going to go away. In fact, the problem just

keeps getting worse. To date, more than 53,000 different viruses have been identified and catalogued— with another half-dozen or so appearing every day.

Just what is it about computer viruses that makes them so deadly—and so easily spread?

How Computer Viruses Work

As you'll see in the next section, the term virus was applied to this type of software very early in its history. It's an apt metaphor, because a computer virus is, in many ways, similar to the biological viruses that attack human bodies.

A biological virus isn't truly a living, independent entity; as biologists will tell you, a virus is

nothing more than a fragment of DNA sheathed in a protective jacket. It reproduces by injecting its DNA into a host cell. The DNA then uses the host cell's normal mechanisms to reproduce itself.

A computer virus is like a biological virus in that it also isn't an independent entity; it must

piggyback on a host (another program or document) in order to propagate.

Many viruses are hidden in the code of legitimate software programs—programs that have

been "infected," that is. These viruses are called file infector viruses, and when the host program is launched, the code for the virus is also executed, and the virus loads itself into your computer's memory. From there, the virus code searches for other programs on your system that it can infect; if it finds one, it adds its code to the new program, which, now infected, can be used to infect other computers.

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This article was published on 2012/03/07