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Safe Computing

Viruses and Spyware

As with keeping yourself healthy, it's important to use preventative measures to avoid infection from malicious computer programs that can run the gamut from mildly annoying to incredibly destructive. Viruses and spyware are the top problems for the average computer user, and though they have some differences, the methods of dealing with them are quite similar.

Protecting your computer
Make sure you cover all Safe Computing topics. Although this page deals with viruses and spyware specifically, there are other steps that you should take to keep you computer as safe from malicious programs as possible. Information explaining the differences between these two types of programs is displayed towards the bottom of this page, though you don't necessarily need to know everything about how they function in order to keep your computer secure.

Columbia has a site license for Symantec Endpoint that allows current faculty, staff and students to run the program on any work and personal computers. This program protects against both viruses and spyware when used properly. Older security programs may only protect against either viruses or spyware; be sure that whatever you are running is blocking both.

Smartphones and tablets are also vulnerable to attacks. Researching and installing a credible security app for your specific device is highly recommended, we offer a list of options on the Phone and Tablet Security page. Be sure not to install any other apps that have not been verified by a reliable source to be virus and malware-free; some app stores do not review everything they offer.

Antivirus and Antispyware basics
Almost all antivirus and antispyware programs function in the same manner. Here's what you need to keep in mind when using them for protection:

  • They need to receive regular updates about the latest viruses and spyware out there. The programs have an updating feature to contact their parent company online and download this new information.
  • They must scan your system's hard drive regularly to check for viruses and spyware.
  • They should offer real time protection, an option to continually monitor aspects of your device that are commonly targeted by viruses and spyware.
  • Be sure it's OK before installing more than one antivirus program. Antivirus software may cause conflicts if you have more than one program or version installed. Antispyware programs typically do not conflict with each other.

Verify that your programs are updating and scanning on a regular basis, and have real time protection turned on. Please see the Columbia University Symantec Endpoint tutorials for step by step instructions, or use the Help menu within a security program to find instructions on using these features.

What's the difference between the two?
It can be very frustrating to keep track of the variety of virus and spyware programs out there, and the potential problems depend solely upon the specific virus or spyware that your computer contracts. Here are the general differences between these two types of software.


  • Replicate and spread copies of themselves to other systems.
  • Are still most commonly spread by opening an infected email attachment, but can also spread to computers and devices that do not have current Operating System patches, especially when a computer is connected to a high speed network.
  • The damage done by these programs can vary, from simply sending copies of itself out through your email to destroying data or crashing your computer.
  • Worms, trojans and other malicious programs are typically referred to as viruses, though by strict technical definition they may not be actual viruses.


  • Works to collect a variety of data from your computer, generally for financial gain.
  • Is most often contracted by installing a program that has spyware bundled into it, or by browsing malicious web sites.
  • Gathers user information through an Internet connection, typically without your knowledge. Classification of spyware ranges from the cookies that track your surfing habits for advertising purposes, to more malicious programs that attempt to gather data such as email addresses, passwords and credit card numbers.
  • Common symptoms of a spyware-infected computer are increasing pop up windows and a general slowing down of the computer as the tracking programs run in the background and transmit data over the Internet.
  • Although spyware is often bundled as a hidden component of freeware or shareware programs, it should be noted that the majority of these programs do not come with spyware.

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Last updated 12/29/2017