Computers Don’t Get Sick – They Get Compromised

Sunday, June 10, 2012 Posted by Corey Harrell
Security awareness campaigns have done an effective job of educating people about malware. The campaigns have even reached the point to where if people hear certain words they see images in their minds. Say viruses then pictures of a sick computer pops into their minds. Say worms then there’s an image of a computer with critters and germs crawling all over it. People from all walks of life have been convinced malware is similar to real life viruses; the viruses that make things sick. This point of view can be seen at all levels within organizations to family members to the average Joe who walks into the local computer repair shop to the person responsible for dealing with an infected computer. It’s no wonder when malware ends up on a computer people are more likely to think about ER then they are CSI. More likely to do what they can to make the “sickness” go away then they are to figure out what happened. To me people’s expectations about what to do and the actions most people take seems to resemble more like how we deal with the common cold. The issue with this is that computers don’t get sick – they get compromised.

Security awareness campaigns need to move beyond imagery and associations showing malware as something that affects health. Malware should instead be called what it is; a tool. A tool someone is using in an effort to take something from us, our organizations, our families, and our communities. Taking anything they can whether it’s money, information, or computer resources. The burglar picture is a more accurate illustration about what malware is than any of the images showing a “sick” computer. It’s a tool in the hands of a thief. This is the image we need people to picture when they hear the words: malware, viruses, or worms. Those words need to be associated with tools used by criminals and tools used by hostile entities. Maybe then their expectations will change about malware on their computer or within their network. Malware is not something that needs to be “made better” with a trip to the ER but something we need to get to the bottom of to better protect ourselves. It’s not something that should be made to go away so things can go on as normal but something we need to get answers and intelligence from before moving forward. People need to associate malware with going home one day and finding burglary tools sitting in their living room. Seeing the tools in their house should make them want to ask: what happened, how this occurred, and what was taken before they ask when they can continue on as normal.

Those entrusted with dealing with malware on computers and networks need to picture malware the same way. It’s not some cold where we keep throwing medicine at it (aka antivirus scan after antivirus scan). It’s a tool someone placed there to do a specific thing. Making the malware go away is not the answer; the same way that making the tools in the living room disappear doesn’t address the issue. Someone figured out a way to put a tool on the computer and/or network and it’s up to us to figure out how. The tool is a symptom of a larger issue and the intelligence we can learn from answering how the malware got onto a system can go a long way in better protecting the ones relying on our expertise. We need to perform analysis on the systems in order to get to the compromise’s root cause.

The approach going forward should not be to continue with the status quo. The status quo of doing what it takes to make the “sickness” go away without any other thought about answering the questions “how”, “when”, and “what”. Those tasked with dealing with a malware infected computer should no longer accept the status quo either. Removing the malware without any investigative actions to determine the “how”, “when”, and “what”. The status quo views malware on a computer as if the computer is somehow “sick”. It’s time to change the status quo to make it reflect what malware on a computer actually is. The computer isn’t “sick” but compromised.
  1. Well said, Corey, I agree with your thoughts on the subject. I've gotten away from using the terms virus, worm, etc as much as possible. I tend to simply use the term malware when talking with clients.

  2. I am always amazed at how language affects our thought processes. Imprecise language often leads to greater confusion. I find that properly phrased questions and a clear problem definition are the keys to solving big issues. Corey, very well said.

Post a Comment