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Malware, short for malicious software, is a blanket term for any disruptive program that infiltrates and harms computers. It can do a wide range of things like stealing information, disrupting computing functions, or spying on you and your devices. It is able to carry out these activities because of security weaknesses in hardware and software.

While malware can do many different things, it always follows the same basic pattern. It starts with you unwittingly installing it. This could be as simple as opening an email attachment or clicking on a suspicious download link. It then spreads to other computers. Sometimes malware uses exploits, which take advantage of bugs and vulnerabilities to infiltrate your system.

Other times malware uses phishing emails, social engineering tactics or a combination to trick you into unwittingly installing it. For example, the infamous WannaCry ransomware cryptoworm began spreading in May 2017 by sending out a fake message from a compromised server. Its code encrypted data and demanded payment in the form of Bitcoin.

Other types of malware include worms, Trojans and rogueware. A worm is a computer program that replicates itself, while a Trojan uses its ability to represent itself as something useful to coerce you into inadvertently installing it. These malicious programs can do things like record your keystrokes and send them to attackers. They can also mine for cryptocurrency using your device’s computing power. They can also expose your sensitive information in a data breach.