[Paleopsych] NYT: Terminating Spyware With Extreme Prejudice
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Sat Jan 29 16:39:49 UTC 2005
Terminating Spyware With Extreme Prejudice
NYT December 30, 2004
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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, Spyware Search & Destroy, AdAware and
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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