The Internet Is Killing PCs

September 2004

We knew it was too good to last. Yes, the Internet was wonderful. Yes, it was a great resource. And yes, it is now making PCs unusable.

My July column offered tips on how to protect yourself. And here I am again, just two months later, back on the same topic. That's because I'm shocked. The problem is exploding.

Even experienced computer users are struggling. One friend of mine, who had all the protections imaginable -- firewall, virus software, spyware detection, and more -- still got infected with spyware. He purchased the product most highly recommended by PC Magazine for removing spyware and still wasn't able to get rid of it. In the end, he had to reformat his hard drive.

I've talked to several people who are simply getting a second computer so that they can have one that's connected to the Internet and one that's not.

One friend has even had his computer hijacked. A program runs constantly in the background, likely sending out spam, and an expert who tried to help him was unable to remove it.

Microsoft recently released the free Service Pack 2 for Windows XP which is supposedly a major upgrade to security. We can only hope.

Spyware seems to be the most serious problem right now. In my July column I suggested the free version of Ad-aware to protect yourself from spyware. A reader suggested that Spybot may be preferable because it works in "real-time." Rather than simply finding spyware already infecting your computer, it notifies you if anything is going after your machine as it happens and lets you get rid of it. (Microsoft's upgrade will do the same.)

Spybot can be downloaded from this page of ad blockers on PC World's web site.

In an Internet discussion group that I frequent, someone gave several additional tips for dealing with spyware. He said that if you know you've been attacked, don't reboot into normal mode until you've disinfected your computer. Instead, reboot into safe mode, run a scan, reboot into safe mode again, and run another scan until no traces are detected.

In addition, he actually recommends that you use three separate spyware removal utilities because often one will detect traces that the other does not. He uses SpySweeper, the commercial version of Ad-aware, and Spybot. Of course none of this helps unless you regularly update these programs with the latest spyware definitions from the vendor's website.

Finally, he advises that you "keep an eye on what's loading up with windows. Spyware loves to hide in the Run keys of the registry." To manage this, he strongly recommends a freeware utility called Startup Inspector for Windows.

Another serious problem that's occurred in the past two months is (can you believe it?) easily fixed. Microsoft Internet Explorer has serious vulnerabilities. That's long been the case but recently an even more malicious security problem arose. A so-called Trojan was detected that, without your knowledge, installs itself when you visit a website.

It's delivered through a pop-up ad that loads a file onto your computer that looks for information such as usernames and passwords. It watches your keystrokes as you visit secure sites, giving the perpetrators access to your account information.

You can solve this by simply switching to a different browser. When this Trojan appeared, even the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team recommended that people use an alternate browser. Microsoft subsequently released seven patches for Explorer, but some experts still recommend switching.

There are some great "open-source" free browsers available. The ones I've tried are excellent and load pages two or three times faster than Internet Explorer. Plus, they have many more features. ("Open-source" refers to software that's being developed and maintained by a worldwide group of volunteers.)

Mozilla seems to be one of the main open-source browser projects. Netscape is also available, but it's simply based on Mozilla. Both programs are actually a suite that includes a browser, e-mail software, web page composer, address book, and a chat function.

Many people prefer Firefox, which is based on Mozilla but only includes the browser. I really like Firefox. I've also tried Camino.

You can get these programs from the Downloads area of the Mozilla site.

One of the saddest aspects of all these security problems is how difficult it makes everything. Computers are already hard enough to use, and it dramatically increases the learning curve if you have to spend lots of time dealing with issues completely unrelated to your purpose for using the dang thing.

Still, I love the Internet.

© 2004 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen