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keith2468
Premium,MVM
join:2001-02-03
Winnipeg, MB

Terminating Spyware With Extreme Prejudice

An interesting read about a non-IT-expert's battle with spyware and how easy and beneficial she found the ultimate solution to the problem.

»www.nytimes.com/2004/12/30/techn···ard.html

Ths NY Times site requires registration to read their articles, so in accordance with common practice in BBR, I've reproduced the relevant parts of the article below.

The New York Times doesn't spam you, and they have lots of interesting articles, so I encourage people to register and view the article there.

quote:
December 30, 2004
Terminating Spyware With Extreme Prejudice
By RACHEL DODES

THE end of the year is a time when people sit down, rethink their priorities and sometimes change their ways. Some quit smoking. Others join a gym. I chose to erase my hard drive and reinstall my operating system.

Sure, it was a drastic move, but my two-year-old I.B.M. ThinkPad - equipped with a 1,000-megahertz Pentium III processor, a high-speed Internet connection and 256 megabytes of memory - was running about as fast as the Apple IIE I used in the mid-80's.

After six months engaged in mortal combat with spyware - parasitic software that tracks your browsing habits, sends out pop-up ads and can even send your private information to an organized crime ring in Guam - I had two options: shell out $1,200 for a new ThinkPad, or wipe my hard drive and start from scratch - a huge production with potentially cataclysmic results.

Since I enjoy new challenges (and more important, since I lack the funds to buy a new laptop), I decided to shoot for the moon and delete, delete, delete.

It did not have to be this way. I can trace the decline of my computer's performance to an ill-advised download over the summer. In a pop-music-induced frenzy, I am embarrassed to admit, I went to www.kazaa.com, downloaded and installed the free file-sharing service, then proceeded to download (a k a steal) Britney Spears's and Madonna's collaborative effort, "Me Against the Music."

I was about to get my karmic retribution.

In downloading Kazaa, I had inadvertently opened the floodgates to all manner of spyware. By the end of the summer, even after I had deleted Kazaa and installed Norton AntiVirus 2004 - which took care of the virus-related part of the problem - I was unable to open Internet Explorer without being deluged with pop-ups enticing me to buy everything from herbal weight-loss pills to obscure business publications.

My home page would mysteriously try to redirect itself to a site called badgurl.grandstreetinteractive.com. Little gray dialog boxes would pop up in the center of my screen to inform me, shockingly, that my computer might be infected with spyware. Then it would crash.

Spyware is "definitely the most annoying problem," said Tim Lordan, staff director of the nonprofit Internet Education Foundation, which joined with Dell Computer this year to mount a spyware awareness campaign (www.getnetwise.com). Spyware is also ubiquitous: in October, a study by America Online and the nonprofit National Cyber Security Alliance found that 80 percent of computers were infected with it.

As my frustration mounted, I sought the advice of fellow spyware sufferers. My friend Jesse, a lawyer at a large New York firm, told me he was forced to wipe his hard drive when his Dell Latitude laptop transmogrified into a purveyor of pornography advertisements. He sheepishly confessed that against his better judgment, he had downloaded a virus- and spyware-addled copy of the Paris Hilton sex video.

"I contracted a sexually transmitted computer virus from Paris Hilton," said Jesse, who requested that his last name not be printed. (He feared his law firm - and his wife - would not be too happy about the download.) "It was chronic."

Downloading dubious files is a surefire way to get spyware, but it can also be transmitted through seemingly innocuous e-mail, by clicking on a banner ad, or from wholesome Web surfing. The programs install themselves in several places on your computer, making it difficult to find and delete them.

What's worse, even if you do delete them, many are programmed to reinstall themselves automatically when the computer is rebooted.

What really distinguishes spyware from other computer security threats (viruses, worms and Trojans) is that it often seems to defy the products meant to exorcise it. McAfee introduced an anti-spyware program - aptly called McAfee AntiSpyware - in February, but it has met with mixed reviews.

Symantec, the maker of Norton security software, will release its first anti-spyware product early in the new year. (Norton AntiVirus can detect some forms of spyware, but cannot get rid of it.) Microsoft also announced that it would release new anti-spyware software by the end of January.

For now, though, computing experts recommend what they call a "multilayered approach" - translation: ad hoc, complicated and largely ineffective.

I tried everything the experts suggested. I switched my default browser from Internet Explorer - the target of most spyware programmers - to Mozilla Firefox (available free at www.mozilla.org) and downloaded and ran free expert-sanctioned software with all sorts of renegade names (CWShredder, Spybot Search & Destroy, AdAware and HijackThis).

I submitted my "HijackThis log" - a three-page list of potentially dubious files - to a reputable online help forum and, following the experts' advice, manually performed a perilous bit of surgery on my computer's vital organs, deleting several keys from its Windows registry.

The pop-ups continued unabated. A Norton AntiVirus scan informed me that despite my efforts, 77 spyware programs were still lurking on my hard drive. (Before this daylong production, I had more than 100 pieces of spyware on my computer, so indeed, it was an improvement.)

Erasing my hard drive, long considered a last-ditch measure, was becoming more and more appealing with each passing virus scan. My friend the bankruptcy lawyer finally convinced me: "The catharsis cannot be understated."

He recommended I talk to his friend Larry Wagner, an independent technology consultant who has become a self-styled sherpa in hard-drive erasure. At last count, he had helped six other people (including his in-laws, his parents, a colleague from work and my friend) deal with spyware problems. Mr. Wagner is particularly enthusiastic about deleting - and upon hearing my sordid tale, requested that I wipe my hard drive under his auspices.

"It's like a baptism for your computer," Mr. Wagner said. "You cannot truly live a good life until you've taken that first step."

I arrived at Mr. Wagner's Upper West Side apartment on a December evening with my laptop, a list of my computer's components, my original Windows XP Pro installation discs, a 20-gigabyte iPod and a bottle of Cabernet.

It is important to note that some computers, including my own, contain a hidden, manufacturer-installed hard drive "partition," which houses operating system software that can be deployed in an emergency. But since not all computers have this feature, I chose to use the XP installation disks instead. (Some people will want to upgrade their operating system in the process - from Windows 2000 to Windows XP, for example - which requires installation disks anyway.)

The first thing Mr. Wagner and I did, since my computer lacked a CD or DVD burner, was to save everything to an external hard drive. (You can buy a plug-and-play keychain drive for $20 to $250, depending on how much storage you want, but an MP3 player also doubles as a nice portable hard drive.) I decided to use my iPod, which was only half full.

I simply plugged it into my laptop (it shows up as an "E" drive under My Computer), and copied onto it all of the files contained in My Documents, My Pictures and My Music. I then transferred the contents of my iPod to Mr. Wagner's desktop, on which we created a folder called Backup. The process took about 90 minutes.

Then, using Mr. Wagner's DVD burner, I saved the entire Backup folder onto a five-gigabyte DVD. (If you are not so lucky as to know someone with a DVD burner, you can do the same thing using a regular CD burner and several CD's, which typically hold about 700 megabytes each, or many, many Zip disks, which hold 250 megabytes each.) I could have simply kept my files on the iPod or another external hard drive and transferred them back to my pristine hard drive after the procedure was over, but it would have been riskier, and I would have ended up with no backup discs.

Now I had a backup of everything. Make that two: Mr. Wagner believes in what he refers to as "Noah's archiving," saving two copies of everything, just in case.

Then I took a deep breath, toasted the New Year, and inserted the XP Pro CD-ROM installation disks into my own computer. My computer asked me if I wanted to reformat my hard drive (yes), and warned me that if I continued all files would be deleted (good). It took about an hour for XP to reformat my hard drive and install itself, and I just sat back and watched while the screens became progressively more colorful.

When my computer rebooted, it had total amnesia. It was like the Kate Winslet character in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," who has brain surgery to erase the memories of a painful relationship. My computer asked me to enter my time zone, country and type of Internet connection I would be using (LAN, dialup, etc.). It thanked me for buying an I.B.M. and asked if I wanted to register my product. (I said I would do it later.)

Now that I had a clean slate, I went online and downloaded all of the XP patches and updates from Microsoft's Web site (windowsupdate.microsoft.com). I made sure I connected to the Internet using an external router with a built-in firewall - after all this, I did not want spyware to sully my pristine hard drive.

I plugged my computer into Mr. Wagner's network, and downloaded all of the necessary Microsoft updates, including Service Pack 2, and restarted my computer. This step took about 40 minutes. Now it was 12:30 a.m., so I thanked Mr. Wagner for his help and went home.

The following morning, I was ready to reinstall all of my software. In keeping with the hypervigilant theme, I started with Norton AntiVirus. After installing it, restarting, and scanning my computer, I was elated to discover I had a clean bill of health. Not a rogue program in sight!

Emboldened by this development, I reinstalled all of my programs - Microsoft Office, iTunes, FinalDraft - and all of my external components, like my printer, camera, CD burner and iPod. Fortunately, I had all of my software discs and their necessary registration codes in a file cabinet next to my desk. The drivers for the external components were not even needed because XP can recognize just about anything and procure the necessary driver online.

The software installations took about eight hours over the course of two days, and involved downloading certain things, like Adobe Reader and Mozilla Firefox, from the Web. Between each installation, I restarted my computer, which made this process annoying and time-consuming. (For those who have tons of software, the prospect of reinstalling everything might be worse than the idea of peacefully coexisting with spyware.)

Finally, it was time to upload all of my saved files. I plugged in my iPod, and just for good measure, deleted "Me Against the Music" from my music library before putting my songs back on iTunes. After all, it's almost 2005, and I did not want any ill-gotten gains to taint my perfect computer.

Two weeks later, still no spyware. Yes, it was a huge production, but after struggling with spyware for the last six months, I have to say it was well worth it.

copyright 2004 NY Times

--
(Virus&Hijacking FAQ + Submit suspected malware + Backups FAQ + Security FAQ TOC)


sammysnake
Never Forget 911
Premium
join:2002-01-19
Salt Lake City, UT

Very GOOD read! Thanks Keith

Sammy



ldq

@cox.net
reply to keith2468

To reformat, is to admit defeat.

ldq



mers2
Premium,MVM
join:2004-03-20
USA
kudos:8

said by ldq:

To reformat, is to admit defeat.

ldq
In this case, I'd say even having to resort to a reformat (I bet our resident experts here could have cleaned the system without a reformat) this was a victory as this is now a user who will exercise care in how she surfs the net and what software is on her computer. Sounds like she now knows all of the security software as well.
--
"Think for yourself and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so too." - Voltaire


Buddel
If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Premium
join:2004-03-06
EU
kudos:3
reply to keith2468

I agree with mers2. The user learned it the hard way, but the user will from now on be more careful, so this is a victory, isn't it?



jack b
Gone Fishing
Premium,MVM
join:2000-09-08
Cape Cod
kudos:1
reply to mers2

...
She may have won the battle,
but will she(we)ever win the war
....



Buddel
If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Premium
join:2004-03-06
EU
kudos:3

1 edit

said by jack b:


...
She may have won the battle,
but will she(we)ever win the war
....
This is an unwinnable war, but by being more careful she can manage to win a couple of more battles.


TheJoker
Premium,VIP,MVM
join:2001-04-26
Charlottesville, VA
kudos:5

1 edit
reply to keith2468

You should always have a backup. Sometimes its indispensable. I've always had a backup. I remember backing up to a large stack of 5 1/4 disks back in the 8086 days. After that, I graduated to a Colorado tape drive, after a few of those, to a 4MM DAT drive. Its still in the system, but I now backup to DVD. I had hard disc corruption last month (never figured out from what), and had to restore a week old disc image. Even now, you could probably backup your essential data files, format, reinstall the OS, restore the programs from the original disks and then restore the data files. I used to take more than just a reformat, back when MBR infectors were more widespread (like the Monkey or Stoned variants).
--
TheJoker



keith2468
Premium,MVM
join:2001-02-03
Winnipeg, MB

Good point about backukps.

»Security »What should I do about backups? / How do I back up my hard drive?



Owlbet
Ignite the Ice
Premium,MVM
join:2002-09-24
Palmer, AK
reply to ldq

said by ldq:

To reformat, is to admit defeat.
To reformat is to put the doubts to rest and obtain peace of mind. JMO

Owl
--
Rocky is, was, and always will be Dawg E. Dawg.