Sunday, 30 January 2005

Spyware and Viruses

After having had requests from a number of friends, I ended up putting together a CD that contains most of what you would need to clean up a PC of spyware and viruses. I had an opportunity to try it out on Friday night, on the machine of a friend that was running Window ME and had become so slow it was unusable.

Arriving at my friend's place, I start up the laptop. Considering how the hard disk LED was constantly on, it was obvious that a lot more was running on that machine than what should have been expected. Opening Internet Explorer to access the index page of the CD I had with me also showed a number of non-standard toolbars, obviously installed without my friend's agreement.

Seeing the unwanted toolbars in IE, I decided to install and run Spybot Search & Destroy first. It took its time to run but found a total of 206 entries, more than I had ever seen. Spybot could not remove everything immediately and had to be run at system startup, in order to run first and remove the malware that would run at startup.

Just after running Spybot, the system started to be a little more perky already so I decided to install and run Grisoft AVG Free Edition, the edition of their flagship product that the provide for free to home users. I have to commend Grisoft in this respect for making this move. Home users can have a free version of a very good anti-virus, including updates and on the other hand it advertises Grisoft. So, I installed it and ran it. It took 1 hour and 20 minutes to scan the drive. At the end of the scan, out of 35000 files on the machine, it had identified nearly 12000 of them that had been infected by a virus. That is every third file on the machine was infected! The list of viruses found was a Who's Who of all the viruses that made the news over the last year or so. AVG then tried to clean up the mess. But after letting it run all night and all of the following day, to see it barely reach 50% of its task, it was obvious it would be easier to just re-install the system from scratch. This will be an exercise for another day. That day, I will also make sure I install ZoneAlarm and Firefox.

One point of note is that my friend only has a modem Internet connection and is not online all the time. She is a typical user, who has little knowledge of IT and how to sort things out on her machine when it goes wrong. Like most other people, she just bought her machine from a vendor with Window pre-installed. She was never told she should install anti-spyware, anti-virus or personal firewall software. Nor would she know where to find it. I can provide her with the relevant software and show her how to use it but this is because I work in IT. What would a person who doesn't have computer savvy friends do? Decide to buy another computer to replace the old one that has become too slow when in fact it just needs cleaning up? This is exactly what my parents nearly did. But then it wouldn't solve the problem and would cost them a lot.

The problem is PC vendors are only interested in selling hardware to unsuspecting people. I don't know of any of them that would take the time to install Windows XP Service Pack 2, an anti-virus or an anti-spyware program on the machine they sell, thus selling completely unprotected systems, while not warning the buyers this is the case. Some of them might sell a Norton or Symantec solution with the PC but it is not free and the virus database updates are usually only valid a year so most people don't renew it and lose the protection. And because there is no revenue in it, no PC vendor will consider offering a service whereby they install free software like Grisoft AVG or Spybot on the machines they sell to customers. In my mind, this is just irresponsible and unfair towards customers. Or maybe they do it on purpose, knowing that customers will come back to them when the machine has become too slow and they will charge them for cleaning it up or for buying a new one? This doesn't sound too ethical to me.

In the meantime, I will keep cleaning up friends' computers in exchange for free meals: I had a very nice dinner on Friday night.

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