• Cybersecurity

The Difference Between Malware and Ransomware: What You Need to Know

Organizations both big and small have become victims of relentless cyberattacks, especially over the last two decades. This has forced the business world to pay serious attention to the various types of cyberattack strategies that exist out there. With the plethora of cybercrimes threatening organizations today, it has become a common occurrence for people to mix them up, thanks to a lack of deep knowledge around the topic. Malware and ransomware are two such terms that, although carry different meanings, are often used synonymously.

Malware is a broad term that refers to a variety of malicious programs that also includes ransomware. This means that not all malware is ransomware. However, all ransomware is malware.

What Is Malware?

Malware, also known as malicious software, is any software program developed by cyber criminals to infiltrate a computer system. A few types of malware include:

  • Virus
    A virus is a software code designed to replicate itself when it infiltrates a computer. Once inside a system, it inserts its own code into the software or file, altering them without the user’s knowledge.
  • Worm
    A worm, just like a virus, is also capable of self-replicating and infecting computer systems. However, unlike viruses, worms can easily spread across systems without any trigger from the user.
  • Trojan Horse
    A Trojan Horse disguises itself as a useful, non-threatening piece of software. Once the user executes the file or software, the malware exploits the system, possibly by stealing crucial data or installing another malware.
  • Spyware
    As the name suggests, this type of malware when inside a computer system covertly gathers sensitive information such as the user’s credentials and financial details. It may also record your online activity and hand it over to a third party for profit.
  • Adware
    Adware acts as a legitimate ad that pops up on the screen, especially while using a web browser. Adware carries within itself malicious files and software that a user is tricked into opening or downloading into their system.
  • Rootkit
    Rootkit is malware that allows the hacker to attain administrator privileges and obtain “root” access to the system being attacked. Rootkit usually remains hidden from the system’s software as well as the operating system, making them hard to detect.
  • Cryptojacking
    Cryptojacking is the process of mining cryptocurrency from someone’s computer through social engineering tactics such as phishing. Cryptojacking can also be carried out using JavaScript code that infects a website and auto-executes a system.

Software is considered malware when it is developed to damage a server, a network, or a computer. Malware infiltrates a system when users browse compromised websites, open malicious emails or attachments, or download unknown applications and software. A system could also get infected with malware if users browse websites with suspicious ads. Malware could also be manually installed into a computer or a network by threat actors if they manage to gain physical access to the system.

What Is Ransomware?

Ransomware is another popular form of malware where the attackers (also known as ransomware authors) block the users from accessing their system or data and threaten to remove them permanently. Ransomware often gets into a system through social engineering tactics that allow hackers access to the network or system. A successful infiltration allows hackers to then exploit the malware to encrypt and block the device and data. Once the data is encrypted and blocked, a ransom demand is presented to the user. The condition set by the ransomware author is that the user can retrieve and access the data only when the ransom amount is paid. While the earliest forms of this type of malware demanded payment through snail mail, ransomware payment today is done via cryptocurrency or credit cards.

Ransomware is also sold as a service by ransomware authors in the form of a platform or a tool to other bad actors. This is known as ransomware-as-a-service. The tool or platform is typically shared by underground vendors with other cybercriminals. An example of such a service would be BlackCat ransomware.

Ransomware authors infiltrate a system in several ways such as phishing, spear phishing, malvertising, and malspamming.

  • Malspam
    Malspam is a technique of accessing a user’s system through spam. Here, a spam email containing malicious attachments is sent to many individuals, expecting some of them to “take the bait” and click on the attachment. The attachment carries malware along with other booby-trapped files such as word documents, PDFs, or other malicious website links.
  • Malvertising
    Malvertising or malicious advertising is the distribution of malware through online advertising, with hardly any user interactions. In this case, when users browse a website, even legitimate ones, they may get automatically directed to criminal servers. The user does not even need to click on any ad to be a victim of such malware. These servers record computer and location details and decide on the malware that best works on the system.
  • Spear phishing
    Spear phishing is used to target victims more specifically. This may be executed by sending emails to employees of an organization addressed as the CEO, asking them to participate in a survey. It could also be in the form of an email from HR asking to download an attachment. Sometimes, spear phishing may be targeted toward high-level executives of an organization such as the CEOs and other decision-makers, in which case it is specifically known as “whaling”.
  • Social engineering
    Social engineering involves tactics used to trick people into opening an attachment or clicking a link, posing as a legitimate institution or individual. An example of social engineering would be acting as the FBI to extort money from users or force them to open a specific file. Malvertising, malspamming, and spear phishing are all different forms of social engineering.

Anyone can be a target of a ransomware attack from individuals and small businesses to large corporations.

Difference Between Ransomware and Malware

Ransomware Malware
Variety Crypto and Locker. Worms, bugs, viruses, trojan horses, spyware, adware, rootkits, cryptojacking, etc.
Delivery Phishing, spear phishing, malvertising, and malspamming. Emails, suspicious websites and links, app installations, and USB.
Effect Its impact could be long-lasting and severe. At worst, it may cause businesses to shut down. May slow the system down, reduce performance, cause errors, and control resources.
Removal Extremely difficult as users would need to pay a ransom or find data backup. Moderately difficult as an antimalware tool can remove the malware.

Regardless of the malicious program, whether ransomware or some other type of malware, user awareness on the topic is paramount in defending businesses from such cyberattacks. While antimalware tools help curb the issue to some extent, an organization is only as safe as the prudence of its people. This makes it crucial to remain alert while interacting with emails and websites on the internet to avoid falling prey to threat actors.