computer virus, rogue computer program, typically a short program designed to disperse copies of itself to other computers and disrupt those computers' normal operations. A computer virus usually attaches or inserts itself to or in an executable file or the boot sector (the area that contains the first instructions executed by a computer when it is started or restarted) of a disk; those that infect both files and boot records are called bimodal viruses. Although some viruses are merely disruptive, others can destroy or corrupt data or cause an operating system or applications program to malfunction. Computer viruses can be spread via removable disks or drives, networks, or on-line services. Thousands of computer viruses are known, and on average three to five new strains are discovered every day. Virus programs can also infect advanced cellular telephones.
Antivirus programs and hardware have been developed to combat viruses. These search for evidence of a virus program (by checking for appearances or behavior that are characteristic of computer viruses), isolate infected files, and remove viruses from a computer's software. Researchers are working to sidestep the tedious process of manually analyzing viruses and creating protections against each by developing an automated immune system for computers patterned after biological processes. In 1995 Israel became the first country to legislate penalties both for those who write virus programs and those who spread the programs.
A distinction should be made between a virus—which must attach itself of another program to be transmitted—and a bomb, a worm, and a Trojan horse. A bomb is a program that resides silently in a computer's memory until it is triggered by a specific condition, such as a date. A worm is a destructive program that propagates itself over a network, reproducing as it goes. A Trojan horse is a malicious program that passes itself off as a benign application; it cannot reproduce itself and, like a virus, must be distributed by diskette or electronic mail. Such forms of computer malware have been used since the early 21st cent. to steal sensitive information from government, business, and personal computers and to blackmail computer users.
See F. B. Cohen, A Short Course on Computer Viruses (2d ed. 1994); G. Smith, The Virus Creation Labs: A Journey into the Underground (1994); W. T. Polk et al., Anti-Virus Tools and Techniques for Computer Systems (1995); M. A. Ludwig. The Giant Black Book of Computer Viruses (2d ed. 1998); P. E. Fites, P. Johnston, and M. P. J. Kratz, The Computer Virus Crisis (1999).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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