Friday, March 26, 2004

Of Hijacked Browsers and Dangerous Registry Edits 

So I found this very cool screensaver online and decided to download it.

I should know better, dontcha think? I mean I am, after all, "in the business."

A day later when my browser came down with a serious case of the "weirds," -- a new toolbar appearing that I hadn't installed, a side panel that wasn't there before, an inclination to go to the Incredifind site at every possible chance -- I knew I'd caught something. Sigh.

I ran PestPatrol and it found 211 cases of Adware and Spyware on my computer, none of which were invited there by me, I might add. I was shocked, although not awed.

Adware is a separate program that is installed to a shareware or freeware program (in this case it must have some attached to that very cool screensaver I just had to have). Adware generates advertising even when the user is not running the program that it came with. The so-called justification for adware is that it helps recover programming development cost and helps to hold down the cost for the user.

Adware has been criticized for occasionally including code that tracks a user's personal information and passes it on to third parties, without the user's authorization or knowledge. This practice has been dubbed spyware and has prompted an outcry from computer security and privacy advocates, including the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Noted privacy software expert Steve Gibson of Gibson Research explains: "Spyware is any software (that) employs a user's Internet connection in the background (the so-called 'backchannel') without their knowledge or explicit permission. Silent background use of an Internet 'backchannel' connection must be preceded by a complete and truthful disclosure of proposed backchannel usage, followed by the receipt of explicit, informed consent for such use. Any software communicating across the Internet absent of these elements is guilty of information theft and is properly and rightfully termed: Spyware."

While the PestPatrol program had identified 211 instances of Adware or Spyware on computer, for some reason it could not delete all of them for me, so I had to hand-edit the Windows Registry, which as any sane computer user knows, is a very dangerous thing to do. One false move in the Registry and you could send your computer into a tailspin that only the PC Doctor can fix. This took hours and almost pre-empted a trip to Costco, about which I would have been truly pissed.

Eventually, I got rid of every single item that PestPatrol had identified. The support dude at my ISP suggested that I also try Lavasoft's Ad-Aware, so I downloaded the latest free version of that and ran it. Much to my surprise Ad-Aware found an additional 25 items that shouldn't have been there. After letting Ad-Aware get rid of those items for me I restarted the computer and ran Norton, which found 25 registry errors. YIKES! Luckily, Norton fixed all of them for me automatically, so I got to go to Costco after all.

The next time I hear the siren call of a fancy schmancy screensaver I will steer my boat in another direction.
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