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Staying Safe Online

A Digital Doctor Treats Computer Contamination

By Glenn Paterson
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 15, 2004; Page F01

Before me lies the patient, a Gateway computer running Windows 98. It is suffering from extremely clogged Internet arteries, unable to reach the Web. As one of The Washington Post's digital doctors, my task is to nurse the machine back to health so my colleague Kathleen Day can access her e-mail and file stories from home.

I have seen this condition many times recently. An unsuspecting user has a broadband connection installed at home but does not realize the vital importance of installing firewall and anti-virus software to safeguard the computer from hackers and malicious programs seeking to hijack a browser, steal passwords or create other mischief.

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Her PC was in such bad shape, it required 10 1/2 hours of surgery to restore it to working condition.

Unfortunately for users, computer equipment manufacturers and resellers don't adequately inform Windows users of the risks involved in accessing the Internet without proper security measures. Software companies don't make it easy to clean up contaminated computers, and most PC owners do not have the technical training to diagnose a difficult problem, or to figure out what procedures to follow when their PC starts acting up.

Cleaning up such problems can take from several minutes to several hours, depending upon the number of files and infections on the computer, and most software packages and updates require the computer to be restarted after they are installed, which adds even more time to the job. Furthermore, it only takes deleting a couple of critical programs to turn a serious problem into a catastrophic one.

As I began working on Kathleen's PC, I found it to be so contaminated with spyware and other auto-loading programs that it was almost unusable. Internet Explorer froze anytime I tried to access the Internet, so I couldn't download Microsoft security updates, and the LiveUpdate program wouldn't retrieve updates to Symantec's Norton AntiVirus program. I needed to install and run three different anti-spyware programs (Spy Sweeper, Spybot, and Ad-Aware) just to remove the multitude of malicious programs on her machine.

Once the infections were removed, LiveUpdate still could not retrieve the latest virus-targeting data. So I gave up on that and uninstalled and reinstalled the entire Norton AntiVirus program, hoping that its update system would work afterward -- but it did not. I again tried to access Microsoft's Windows Update Web site, but IE still failed to respond.

Suspecting a problem with Internet Explorer itself, I tried to repair IE using the Add/Remove Programs control panel. That didn't work either, producing an error message that indicated some file or files necessary for IE were damaged or inaccessible. Trying to restore the previous version of IE, 5.5, yielded no benefit, either.

Finally, I abandoned ship, reinstalling the entire Windows 98 operating system to repair the damage to Internet Explorer and allow Kathleen's computer to access the Internet and update the Norton AntiVirus definitions.

At that point, I thought I was in the home stretch. All that was left to do was install her copy of Norton Personal Firewall 2004. Little did I suspect that I was about to open a Pandora's box of bugs.

Over the next four days, I tried to get the two programs installed and running together, repeatedly installing and uninstalling the programs, calling Symantec tech support for assistance and following troubleshooting instructions found on Symantec's Web site. But all attempts failed. I finally gave up and suggested Kathleen have me remove both Norton products and replace them with comparable ones from McAfee, a competing security software developer.

Not being one to accept digital defeat graciously, I later searched the Symantec Web site for "Norton AntiVirus 2004 Windows Protection Error," and found a two-page document that says the problem I encountered "is caused by a conflict between Norton Internet Security or Norton Personal Firewall and a Windows component or device drive that has not been updated."

The document explains in detail how to remove all traces of both the anti-virus and firewall products, and it suggests that the user update Windows and all the device drivers installed on the PC. Then, at the very bottom of the second page of the document, in the second-to-the-last instruction, the user is instructed to "Install each of your Symantec programs, starting [emphasis mine] with Norton Internet Security or Norton Personal Firewall" -- not the anti-virus software.

So to sum up, I spent one day cleaning up problems created by ne'er-do-well hackers and overzealous advertisers and four more trying to resolve a known problem with a product that is supposed to help prevent problems, not create new ones. Yes, some of the trouble could have been avoided if Kathleen had kept her anti-virus and operating system software up to date. However, much of the responsibility lies with Symantec and the rest of the computer industry.

The technician I spoke with should have been aware of and told me about the incompatibility problem instead of just pointing me to a Web document describing how to uninstall and reinstall the Norton software.

More important, everybody selling to home users -- Microsoft, hardware manufacturers, software developers and retailers -- needs to do a better job of informing customers of the risks and potential problems of Internet access. They need to give PC purchasers simple tools with clear and complete instructions for avoiding such problems and for solving them when they do occur.

Demo versions of anti-spyware programs can be downloaded from the Internet for free. Ad-Aware is available from Lavasoft at www.lavasoftusa.com, Webroot Software's Spy Sweeper can be downloaded from www.webroot.com, and Spybot Search and Destroy is available at www.spybot.info.

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