computer virus | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Criminal Law

A computer virus is malicious software that replicates itself, spreading across computers, potentially causing data loss and legal repercussions.

In our rapidly advancing digital world, computer viruses are becoming an increasingly critical issue. But what exactly is a computer virus? It’s a type of malicious software (malware) that’s created to spread from one computer to another. Once inside a computer, it can do all sorts of harmful things. From a criminal law perspective, creating, spreading, or using a virus can lead to serious legal consequences.

What is a Virus?

Imagine a real-life virus that spreads from person to person, causing illness. A computer virus is kind of similar, except it spreads between computers and causes harm to the computers or their data. Just like a biological virus, a computer virus attaches itself to a ‘host’ (like a document or a program) and makes copies of itself. It can then spread to other computers when the infected file is shared or downloaded.

How Does a Virus Infect a Computer?

A computer can get infected with a virus in a few ways. One way is through the Internet. For example, if you download a file or a program from a website that’s not secure, it might have a virus attached to it. Viruses can also be spread through email attachments or even through USB drives.

Once it is on your computer, it can do a lot of damage. Some are designed to delete or alter files. Others might steal personal information, like passwords or credit card numbers. Some viruses can even take over your computer and use it to attack other computers.

The Intent Behind Computer Viruses

People create them for different reasons. Some do it to cause damage or disruption, either to individual users or to organizations. Others do it to steal information or money. Some people even create viruses just to prove that they can, without intending to cause major harm.

Computer Viruses from a Criminal Law Perspective

From a criminal law standpoint, creating or spreading computer viruses is a crime. It’s a form of cybercrime which involves using computers or the internet to commit illegal activities. Laws vary from place to place, but generally, it’s illegal to knowingly create or spread a virus.

If a person creates one that steals personal information, they could be charged with identity theft. If they create one that causes damage to a computer’s hardware or software, they could be charged with vandalism or destruction of property. If they use one to attack other computers or networks, they could be charged with unauthorized access or even terrorism, depending on the scale of the attack.

The consequences of these crimes can be severe. They can include hefty fines and, in some cases, jail time. Additionally, the person could be ordered to pay damages to the victims of the virus, which could add up to a lot of money if the virus affected a lot of people or businesses.


In conclusion, a computer virus is a type of malicious software that’s designed to spread from one computer to another, causing harm along the way. From the perspective of criminal law, the creation, distribution, or use of computer viruses can lead to serious legal consequences. As we continue to rely more and more on digital technology, understanding computer viruses and the law around them is becoming increasingly important.

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Last Modified: 05/14/2023

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