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Malware is a blanket term for computer programs developed by cyberattackers to disrupt or gain unauthorized access to systems and networks. Viruses, Trojan horses, ransomware and spyware are all examples of malware.

Threat actors use malware to steal data, encrypt files, or make changes to device settings. Some malware can even run unauthorized programs and create unauthorized links to other devices. As the New York Times explains, malware also includes “rootkits,” which are collections of software tools that give threat actors remote access to a system. They can vary and hide in operating systems. Other types of malware include logic bombs, which lie dormant until a condition is met, and time bombs, which are bits of code that will be activated at a predetermined date or time.

Many kinds of malware are difficult to detect. Cyberattackers may hide malicious code in seemingly harmless file formats, like pictures and video clips, or disguise them as programs that do something useful, such as convert PDFs, unzip files, find product discounts or provide caller ID functionality on mobile devices. However, IT support teams might notice the performance of affected computers decline, or suspicious network activity, such as unexpected communication with unknown servers or device configuration changes.

To become infected, users must inadvertently click a link or open an attachment in an email or visit a website with malicious content. Once installed, malware then takes the necessary steps to carry out its attack, whether it is stealing data, deleting files, encrypting them, changing device settings, or installing other malware.