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It’s not a virus, it’s adware

Jorge DiazSE
Many people tend to confuse the function of a virus with the one of adware, this misunderstanding of the basic of what each software is and how it operates causes users and organizations to take the wrong security measures that would protect them against attacks.
Many people tend to confuse the function of a virus with the one of adware, this misunderstanding of the basic of what each software is and how it operates causes users and organizations to take the wrong security measures that would protect them against attacks.

For starters, let’s define what they are: virus and adware are two different types of malware, each exploiting different aspects of computing architecture to carry out their payload. Malware is simply a category used to refer to software designed to disrupt normal system operations, example of malware are: virus, adware, spyware, Trojan, rootkit, bot, etc.

Let’s go back to our original topic and go over what makes a computer virus a virus,  a Computer Virus is a malicious program that can replicate itself without user interaction by exploits Operating System, Applications, and software vulnerabilities. What the virus does after it’s been executed is another story, though the common denominator is that it’ll disrupt normal system operations and it will attempt to replicate itself.

Something interesting about computer virus is that as much as they can be sophisticated programs most of them pray on users’ vulnerabilities for the initial installation, also known social engineering. “Good” virus writers also study human behavior and emotions hence the I Love you Virus ,they plan their initial attack to align themselves with special occasions, dates, holidays, and\or anything that would catch users with their guards down,  they know that is easier for a computer user to execute the program when it’s presented is a way that is appealing and harmless to them. When planning a targeted attack they use reconnaissance to profile the target’s behavior and technical implementation to ensure the software goes undetected.  This type of targeted attacks are primarily use for corporate and government espionage rather than to the general population, Stuxnet is a perfect example of a targeted attack of nations against other nation.

Viruses exploit software and system vulnerabilities and their infections varie from hiding your documents to holding your data hostage. Example of few viruses are and how they affect system vulnerabilities are:
An Antivirus software is the software designed to protect your computer and remove viruses. As malware has become more prevalent and sophisticated over the past few year software companies started packing a more comprehensive antimalware software, also known as Endpoint protection, which includes protections against viruses, adware, spyware, etc, and some even include their own host firewall and a basic webcontent filter solution as part of the package.

That’s enough for computer viruses, now let’s talk about adware.

Advertisement software, or adware for short, is a software written with the sole purpose of displaying unwanted advertisement. The advertisement are shown in the form of pop-up windows, by hijacking a browser session, or by modifying the displayed website on the user’s end and creating hyperlink to third party websites.  The effects of adware tend to be more irritating than damaging to the system but its effect can also be quantified in terms of dollar amounts.  

Imaging a small business of 50 computers and five of them are infected with adware, if users rely on their computers to carry out their daily work functions having unwanted adware affect 10% of daily business activities would translate into some serious productivity loses. Also, they can be the bridge between computer viruses and your system as users are enticed into clicking on links pointing to suspicious sites.

Adware is usually hidden as part of other program downloads, it’s very popular on websites that offer product discounts, illegal downloads, and many multimedia sites. They are usually attached to other programs and can also install themselves as browser plugins or extension which makes them very difficult to antimalware to detect.

An interesting aspect of adware is that it has the ability to “read” your browser history and browser cookies to display a more customized intrusive advertisement. It is an obvious invasion of privacy that is illegal in many countries but for now it’s alive and well here in the US.

Something to keep in mind is that not all advertisement is adware, the key point to keep in mind is that adware delivers unwanted aggressive advertisement. The internet is commercialized and most website have one form or another of tracking your web browsing activities and displaying customized ads but adware takes to another level.

Let’s look at some adware examples:
  • This seamlessly adware tricks the users into updating the Flash player when in reality it’s redirects the users to a malicious website where malware is automatically downloaded.
  • These two other examples are classic adware on steroids. The truth is that it goes beyond the irritating pop-up displays to actually coercing users into calling the provided number to have technical support assist them remote the virus from their computer, of course you’d have to pay a service fee and allow the technician to do a remote session to your computer.   
  • An automated system identifies your ISP, IP address, and geo location as the page is loaded, then you are greeted by another automated system that tells you the basic system information it found about you and advises you to contact technical support immidiately. Needless to say this is a Scam.
  • Lastly adware also has the ability to scan the content of a webpage for words it would turn into hyperlinks to third party sites, this is a very clever way of exploiting the web browser and presenting the user with links not created by the website.
In the following example you’ll see an excerpt of my website seen from a PC infected with adware, notice the two highlighted and underlined words INTERNET and CLOUD. As you can see they are hyperlink pointing to a third party website. The adware did not change the content of my website but it changed what’s displayed to a user in an adware infected computer

pc-is-infected-pic3.PNGThe basic understanding of computer viruses and adware can help determine the action taken to get rid of the pesky software. Many people have antivirus software on their computers and yet still get adware, as I mentioned earlier if the adware installs as a browser plugin or extension it may pass as a legit program to the eyes of the antimalware, in this case a manual process is needed to remove the software from the system.  You can look at one of my blogs to show you how to remove adware extension from your web browser.
Adware and Virus are disruptive, irritating, and have the potential of compromising your systems and data. A comprehensive security solution and proactive administration is necessary to ensure proper system functionality, although the concept of absolute no virus infection is unattainable in a regular working environment the big differentiator will be what happens when computers get infected  and for that you need to prepare.


Thank you for reading my article, please leave valuable feedback.  If you liked this article would like to see more, please click the Yes button near the: Was this article helpful?  at the bottom of this article just below and to the right of this information. 

Jorge DiazSE

Comments (2)

Thomas Zucker-ScharffSenior Data Analyst


This is an excellent article, but I am surprised that you did not correct more of the mistakes - they make it harder to read (I'm also surprised that a page editor didn't point that out).

Another good article, voted YES.

Yashwant Vishwakarma

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