The Joy of Spyware

I have a friend who is a hairdresser, and a very good hairdresser indeed. In fact, out of all the people who have taken scissors to my head, she is the only one who can produce a result that makes me happy (a caesar cut in the Derek Jacobi / Paul Darrow vein). Earlier this year I found myself overdue for such a haircut, so we arranged a barter: she would trim my locks for free if I could get her sluggish computer back to a decent speed.

After the choppage was done, I fired up her ancient no-brand WinMe box and took a look around. The desktop was cluttered with various novelty .exe files (xmas lights and such), and windows explorer had mysteriously grown a few extra toolbars that scrolled weather info and provided input boxes for various dodgy search engines. Clearly the box was drowning in a cesspool of spyware and viruses.

An infestation of this sort was pretty much what I had expected when she offered the barter, so before I came over I had burnt a CD of free virus / spyware killing software, as well as the latest Firefox (at the time, 0.8). I sat my hairdressing friend down next to me and ran AdAware. After fifiteen minutes of disk grinding it reported six hundred pieces of spyware. A few more clicks and it had removed them all bar one solitary beastie. The remaining bit of spyware refused to budge, but offered an ‘uninstaller’ as it was masquerading as something semi-useful. It wasn’t my box, and I was curious as to what it would do, so I gave it a stab. Good to its word, the spyware uninstalled itself! This was a bit too easy for my liking, so I ran AdAware again and found that the departing spware had installed three new bits of evil on the way out. Happily AdAware knew how to squash these and we were soon spyware-free.

I told my friend about IE, and email attachments, and the easy things you could do to avoid spyware. She said that novelty .exes and toolbars were the best thing about her computer.

Next up I scanned for viruses. Again, all were removed but one, but this time, the remaining nasty could not be dislodged by hook or by crook. I googled it and it seemed relatively harmless, so I left it in place and sandboxed the file it was lurking in. After that I installed Firefox, removed the visible links to IE, uninstalled all the OEM printer wizards and other unwanted apps, defragged it, gave it a final scan for spyware, and rebooted it. Now that six hundred processes weren’t phoning home simultaneously, it went nice and fast. I showed my hairdressing pal how to use Firefox and set her wallpaper, then strolled home, satisfied with a job well done.

That was in June. I visited her for dinner a few days ago.

Her boyfriend took me into the study to show me a CD-ROM of novelty Flash games he’d been given. Alarm bells began ringing in my head. They were still using Firefox (tabs and all), which was great, but the spyware toolbars had returned and the computer was once again plodding along at a snail’s pace.

And that, my friends, is why you shouldn’t ever bother.

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