Honolulu Lite

Charles Memminger

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Spyware is harder
than opihi to detach

What would you do if someone sneaked into your garage, secretly installed a gadget that controlled how fast you could drive and what stations you could hear on your car radio? And what would you do if, every time you tried to remove the device, or even ASKED someone to remove it, it turned off your engine and kept the car from running?

You'd probably get the police to arrest whoever installed the odious device and then get a team of lawyers to sue the idiot for invasion of privacy, trespassing and criminally messing around with your stuff.

So why is the sanctity of another mechanical appliance -- your computer -- not subject to the same protections as your car or even refrigerator?

I don't know. All I know is that I went mental when I discovered that an evil piece of computer "spyware" called "180 Search Assistant" had infiltrated my computer and I couldn't get rid of it. The innocuously named program sneaks onto your hard drive while you're surfing the Internet. Unlike a virus, it doesn't scramble your data or fry your motherboard. This is a spy program; it records everywhere you go on the Internet and sends pop-up ads and other junk into your system.

I've been known, purely for journalistic research purposes you understand, to scan the occasional "adult" Web site, but I was shocked when a photo of a naked woman appeared on my desktop and I couldn't get rid of her. That's how I discovered 180 Search Assistant had infiltrated my computer. When I tried to delete it, I got the message "Access Denied." When I tried to un-install it, it shut down my Internet service and at one point apparently turned off my telephone. When I Googled any Web site that could tell me how to remove 180 Search Assistant, the spyware shut down my connections. It was like I was dealing with Hal, the wicked "2001: A Space Odyssey" computer.

And the thing is, 180 Search Assistant is an actual company with its own Web site. Yet the Internet is filled with people yelling and screaming about how this thing takes over your computer and your life.

MANY LOCAL repair companies have no experience with getting rid of it. I finally discovered Johnathan Davis, owner of A Mobile PC Tech, who is a sort of spyware exorcist. Using special software of his own design, instead of holy water, it took Johnathan an hour to rid my computer of the demon program. And he found nearly 100 other nether-world spy programs lurking in there.

"Ninety-eight percent of personal computers are infected with spyware, and the owners don't know it," he said. But, unlike the insidious 180 Search Assistant, you can delete or un-install the others when you find them.

Why companies like 180 Search Assistant haven't been sued out of existence for invasion of privacy and hijacking personal appliances, I don't know. If any lawyers or computer geeks out there know the answer, drop me a line.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Charles Memminger, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists' 2004 First Place Award winner for humor writing, appears Sundays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. E-mail cmemminger@starbulletin.com



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