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   grand ecology of malice
Saturday, March 12 2005
Today I saw firsthand the sort of damage that can be done by the sudden attachment of an always-on internet connection directly to an unpatched Windows 2000 machine. The poor sick machine strained under the weight of four or five different search bars, various processes with strange names routinely ate 60-80 percent of the CPU's capability, and its Internet Explorer homepage had been replaced by a porn-heavy "adult links" web page (mind you, the computer belonged to a single mother with two young children). Trying to do any useful work with this computer was an exercise in futility; the cursor responded to the mouse haltingly, sometimes after a ten second delay. The machine was a shell of its former self, a pod computer doing the nefarious bidding of distant malware authors.
Interestingly, though, spyware-fighting tools were strewn across this machine's desktop. These included the much-advertised "free" AOL spyware tool, as well as a number I hadn't heard of (thus raising my suspicion).
I killed off all the bad processes and the mouse became responsive enough for me to run HijackThis and delete all the BHOs and suspect Windows Autoloads. Then I applied the latest patches from Microsoft, although I didn't think these would hold for long. After the things I've seen, I don't think any Windows computer should be attached directly to the internet. I told the client that she should go out and buy a router, that it didn't matter what kind, but that she should have some sort of non-windows hardware between her cable modem and her computer. I'd go a little further and say that, in my experience, Windows machines with modems are not much more secure than Windows machines connected directly to cable modems. I don't know why there aren't more routers available with dialup modems for people unable to get broadband.

This evening I read an interesting bit of investigative journalism at comparing the features of various spyware-fighting applications, both those that cost money and those that are free. As I would have expected, the anti-spyware programs that cost money are demonstrably inferior to the ones that are available for free. And some of the programs that purport to fight spyware actually install some of the worst offenders, an insult added to the injury of being made to pay.
It turns out that most of the spyware-fighting programs that cost money are sold via advertisements launched by spyware. The vesting of interests in a relationship of this sort is not to the benefit of the consumer. It's a grand ecology of malice playing out in the complex inner-workings of machines that everybody depends on but few have time to understand.
The MyNetProtector mascot. My rule of consumer culture #8: always be suspicious of anything marketed with a big-headed, small-footed homunculus.
It's great that scrutiny is being drawn to this issue; the PCWorld article is an in-depth one and is damning in its conclusions if not in its language. But part of the blame for the rise of anti-spyware scams rests solely on the internet user. In this day and age, ignorance is no longer the excuse it used to be (and might one day be again). Google makes research nearly effortless, and there's never any reason to drop money on a purchase without finding out first whether or not it's going to be effective. On the very first Google result page produced by a search for MyNetProtector, we find that people are saying the $40 program is a fraud. Meanwhile all the spyware victims on web messageboards sing the praises of the otherwise unmarketed Adaware, which is free. I suppose people still aren't used to the notion that a free, unmarketed product can be vastly superior to an expensive, heavily-promoted one. After all, our consumer culture does everything it can to keep this lesson from being taught.

For linking purposes this article's URL is:

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