Sunday, July 17, 2005

Corrupted PC's Find New Home ... In the Dumpster

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Corrupted PC's Find New Home ... In the Dumpster

Matt Richtel and John Markoff,
NY Times
July 17, 2005

San Francisco - Add personal computers to the list of throwaways in the
disposable society.

On a recent Sunday morning when Lew Tucker's Dell desktop computer was
overrun by spyware and adware* - stealth software that delivers intrusive
advertising messages and even gathers data from the user's machine - he did
not simply get rid of the offending programs. He threw out the whole

Mr. Tucker, an Internet industry executive who holds a Ph.D. in computer
science, decided that rather than take the time to remove the offending
software, he would spend $400 on a new machine.

He is not alone in his surrender in the face of growing legions of digital
pests, not only adware and spyware but computer viruses and other
Internet-borne infections as well. Many PC owners are simply replacing
embattled machines rather than fixing them.

"I was spending time every week trying to keep the machine free of viruses
and worms," said Mr. Tucker, a vice president of, a Web
services firm based here. "I was losing the battle. It was cheaper and
faster to go to the store and buy a low-end PC."

In the face of a constant stream of pop-up ads, malfunctioning programs and
performance slowed to a crawl or a crash - the hallmarks of spyware and
adware - throwing out a computer "is a rational response," said Lee Rainie,
director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, a Washington-based
research group that studies the Internet's social impact.

While no figures are available on the ranks of those jettisoning their PC's,
the scourge of unwanted software is widely felt. This month the Pew group
published a study in which 43 percent of the 2,001 adult Internet users
polled said they had been confronted with spyware or adware, collectively
known as malware. Forty-eight percent said they had stopped visiting Web
sites that might deposit unwanted programs on their PC's.

Moreover, 68 percent said they had had computer trouble in the last year
consistent with the problems caused by spyware or adware, though 60 percent
of those were unsure of the problems' origins. Twenty percent of those who
tried to fix the problem said it had not been solved; among those who spent
money seeking a remedy, the average outlay was $129.

By comparison, it is possible to buy a new computer, including a monitor,
for less than $500, though more powerful systems can cost considerably more.

Meantime, the threats from infection continue to rise, and "the arms race
seems to have tilted toward the bad guys," Mr. Rainie said.

The number of viruses has more than doubled in just the last six months,
while the number of adware and spyware programs has roughly quadrupled
during the same period, said Vincent Weafer, a senior director at Symantec,
which makes the Norton computer security programs. One reason for the
explosion, Symantec executives say, is the growth of high-speed Internet
access, which allows people to stay connected to the Internet constantly but
creates more opportunity for malicious programs to find their way onto

Mr. Weafer said an area of particular concern was infections adept at
burying themselves in a computer system so that the automated cleansing
programs had trouble finding them. The removal of these programs must
often be done manually, requiring greater technical expertise.

There are methods of protecting computers from infection through antivirus
and spyware-removal software and digital barriers called firewalls, but
those tools are far from being completely effective.

"Things are spinning out of control," said David Gelernter, a professor of
computer science at Yale.

Mr. Gelernter said his own family's computer became so badly infected that
he bought a new one this week. He said his two teenage sons were balking at
spending the hours needed to scrub the old one clean of viruses, worms and

Mr. Gelernter blames the software industry for the morass, noting that
people are increasingly unwilling to take out their "software tweezers" to
clean their machines.

Microsoft executives say they decided to enter the anti-spyware business
earlier this year after realizing the extent of the problem.

"We saw that a significant percentage of crashes and other problems were
being caused by this," said Paul Bryan, an executive in the company's
security business unit. Windows XP Service Pack 2, an upgrade to the latest
Windows operating system that has been distributed to more than 200
million computers, includes an automated malware removal program that
has been used 800 million times this year, he said.

At least another 10 million copies of a test version of the company's
spyware removal program have been downloaded. Yet Microsoft executives
acknowledged that they were not providing protection for people who have
earlier versions of the company's operating system. And that provides little
comfort for those who must navigate the perils of cyberspace.

Terrelea Wong's old computer now sits beside her sofa in the living room,
unused, except as a makeshift table that holds a box of tissues.

Ms. Wong, a physician at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in South San
Francisco, started getting a relentless stream of pop-up ads a year ago on
her four-year-old  Hewlett-Packard desktop computer and a regular
 message in which her entire screen would turn blue and urge her to "hit
any key to continue."

Sometimes, stymied by all the pop-up windows, the computer would freeze

After putting up with the problem for months, Ms. Wong said she decided
last November that rather than fix her PC, she would buy a new one. She
said she figured the cost difference would not be much, but she was wrong;
succumbing to the seduction of all the new bells and whistles, she spent
$3,000 on a new Apple laptop.**

Still, she said she was happy to be starting over. In fact, she is instituting
new rules to keep her home computer virus-free.

"I've modified my behavior. I'm not letting my friends borrow my
computer," she said, after speculating that the indiscriminate use of the
Internet by her and her friends had led to the infection of her old computer.
"I don't click on any advertisements, and I'm always careful where I click
on a page."

Peter Randol, 45, a stockbroker for  Charles Schwab in Denver, is at his
wits' end, too. His family's four-year-old Dell computer has not been the
same since last year when they got a digital subscriber line for high-speed
Internet access. Mr. Randol said the PC's performance has slowed, a result
he attributes to dozens of malicious programs he has discovered on the
computer with antivirus and anti-adware software he downloaded from
the Internet.

He has eliminated some of the programs, but random error messages
continue to pop up on his screen, and the computer is agonizingly slow
when he wants to do something even as simple as check e-mail messages.

"I may have no choice but to buy a new one," he said, noting that he hopes
that by starting over, he can get a computer that will be more impervious to

Buying a new computer is not always an antidote. Bora Ozturk, 33, who
manages bank branches in San Francisco, bought a $900 Hewlett-Packard
computer last year only to have it nearly paralyzed three months ago with
infections that he believes he got from visiting Turkish news sites.

He debated throwing the PC out, but it had pictures of his newborn son
and all of his music files. Mr. Ozturk also considered bringing in a
professional technician, but the ones he found were charging $60 an hour.

Finally, he decided to fix it himself, spending 15 hours learning what to
do, then saving all his pictures and music to a disk and then wiping the
hard drive clean - the equivalent of starting over.

For his part, Mr. Tucker, the executive, said the first piece
of software he installed on the new machine two weeks ago was antivirus
software. He does not want a replay of his frustrations the last month,
when the attacks on his old machine became relentless and unstoppable.

"It came down to the simple human fact that maintaining the old
computer didn't pay," he said.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company


* Spyware is sort of like a telephone that listens in to conversations you are having with your wife - when the phone is on the hook! Adware is like being wakened in the middle of the night by a voice emanating from the wall - reminding you to take a look at the new Chevrolet at your local auto dealer.

** Yes, they are expensive but you don't get spyware or adware on them.




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