Friday, May 11, 2007

Of Naps and Naifs and Cranky Computers

I wanted to post about something with nothing to do with cranky computer issues again today but with even my dreams suffused with it, it seems a futile quest to come up with another topic. Not to mention it would feel forced and artificial. I fell asleep shortly after dinner in spite of being anxious to get started with my session. I dreamt of trying to move out to the living room with my laptop only to find it rearranged and a maze of electrical plugs which would not stay of the right size to plug in my power cord..

I am exhausted with the stress of the roller coaster of emotions during this two-week long malware attack on my laptop. It began just before 3AM on Saturday morning, April 28 with a blizzard of pop-up and pop-under and unrequested windows followed also by an unrequested download and installation of a mysterious program.

I'm not going to do a play-by-play here, I'm too tired for that. And in spite of the fact I have difficulty thinking about anything else right now, it still bores me to try to write about it in a coherent fashion. It has been bad enough that every conversation with my husband for the last two weeks has been about this and I am weary of talking about AVG scans, BHOs, memory, register, system32, Trojans, Adware, Worms, root systems, Tracking Cookies, Processes, Connections, Virtual Memory Paging File, Browser plug-ins, updates, quarantine, virus vaults, ActiveX this and JavaScript that and software signature slates, start folder, temporary Internet files and .dll .exe. .bak. .cab .hta,..

Tonight after dinner and dishes, I was too exhausted to care that there was a possibility the worst of the moles had been routed out earlier today. It is no wonder considering that I've slept less than six hours per day for the last two weeks and often less than five. My dreams have been full of the images and anxieties of my waking days. After dinner I called up the IE browser for the first time since the AVG ant-virus had claimed to discover and quarantine the vicious little vtutq.dll object in system32 this morning.

For the first time in two weeks surfing onto a page of my choosing did not add one to four extra URLs to my history of which I had no knowledge, usually no sight of and no way to exit from since even the windows that sometimes briefly showed themselves would disappear almost instantly. Many of these URLs were on some kind of automatic refresh for when I right-clicked on them in history and called up their properties it showed multiple visits within minutes. Often in the double digits inside of an hour. Some of them would be closing in on a hundred visits by the end of a day. Every link clicked on, every new window or tab opened would trigger these ghosts. I spent a good part of the first week trying to block those URLs until I discovered that they weren't the culprits only the clients of the culpable . Though I think a case could be made that businesses should be held accountable to some extent when the advertising or promotion they commission is performed with blatantly malicious tactics that are analogous to vandalism and theft.

I would also think that they would not want to be paying for 'views' of their ad or web site that are as virtual as the pixels in your dreams. Or so I was convinced until a Google search on the name of one of the most active of those mystery URLs turned up a page about Search Engine Optimization which was listing the top 500 best performing web sites. This URL turned out to be a Google wannabe that had had a stat history in the single digits for months until three months ago when it suddenly exploded. I wonder how many of the 68,000 page views it received in the last month were 'visits' that were as virtual as the two or three hundred my browser registered in the past two weeks. How many individual victims of this same Trojan Adware Browser Helper Object aka vtutq.dll would it take to account for 68,000? Say each unique 'visitor' registered two separate 'visits' per day and refreshed ten times on each of those 'visits'. That is probably an underestimate but it gives you 242.857 'visitors' aka victims.

So there you have the motive. Wouldn't we all like to make it into the top 500 ranking in web page popularity with under 250 virtual viewers? By virtual viewer here I mean visitors that may have been unaware of the visit and certainly did not initiate it voluntarily. That page ranking causes your page to show up in the first page of a Google or Yahoo search. And that is where they attract their real, volunteer visitors who become the potential customers or regular visitors. At first, when I realized the mystery URLs were 'only' clients of the ad service that was using the Trojan, I was prepared to sympathize with them as one victim with another. But I am not so sure now. Either they are completely conscious of the tactic and thus complicit or they are careless about Internet ethics.

I find it exceedingly interesting and hardly an accident that this all began within five minutes after I wrote a lengthy post about taking my work seriously part of which entailed learning to promote it in spite of how anxious anything to do with self-promotion or any kind of calling attention to myself makes me. My first emotional reaction over the next three to five days was an inclination to feel that this was a kind of punishment for daring to defy that interdiction against self-promotion that was part of my religious upbringing.

Then I went through a stage of anger at the villains who dared to do this thing. That lasted another week. Then I reached a stage of chagrin at being such a naif about Internet surfing safety and so complaisant that I had not gotten around to backing up my personal files in the entire 19 months since acquiring the laptop. Another issue related to respecting my work. The last several days have been as much about the project of organizing my files on both the laptop and PC for backup as they have been about the Whack-A-Mole game with the malware. A great deal of my anxiety has to do with fear that this thing will do some serious damage to my system and possibly crash it before I can get my files off and safe.

My husband might have already done the hard drive wipe he thinks is the best way to insure all pieces of the malware are eliminated, if my files could have been backed up with a few keystrokes. But not only have I not backed them up ever since moving them from the PC to the laptop, I have let them spread out in a disorganized fashion and my husband has been using my desktop more than his own so he has laid tracks down in my My Documents folder. It is not possible to just backup the My Documents folder either as some of the malware had planted pieces of themselves there in the My Downloads folder and occasionally in folders they created themselves.

I am getting close to ready to back up my personal files. I have several more hours of work cutting and pasting personal email exchanges from the AOL files on both laptop and PC and the MSN files on the laptop. Cutting and pasting the body of the email along with the subject header and time stamp is the only way I know of to get them out of the proprietary software prison they are in. My husband has wanted to uninstall all AOL software off both computers for months because of their large footprints in the system for something that isn't even used. Only knowing I wanted to rescue my email first has prevented him.

The good news right now is that I have been using the IE browser for several hours with no evidence of intrusive URL tracks being laid down in my history. I am almost beginning to hope the hard drive wipe may not be necessary. But my hopes that the thing has been cleared out were raised before and then dashed when it returned after a restart. If my history and temporary Internet files remain clean through this session and the vtutq browser add on does not replant itself (possibly by a new name) after the next restart, I may take a few more breaths of hope infused oxygen. If the virus and spyware scans turn up zero threats or infections again tomorrow as they did this afternoon and the history remains clear of intruder tracks, I may hyperventilate on hope.

My husband too is wary of taking it for granted the moles have been defeated. He is going to check out a site I discovered during my research which purports to be a a resource for those suffering with cranky computers. They have a forum where you can join and then ask for help. The pages I read on there seem to indicate the people running this site are as outraged by these malware foisters as I am and their mission is to put as many wrenches into their gears as they can. One of which is education of the Internet naifs like me.

They claim to be able to explain the intricacies in language even the least geeky could comprehend and I read on there how one person was walked through removing that dreaded vtutq. I would have joined and asked for help but I got bit once before when I downloaded a purported 'free' spyware zapper that turned out to be more malware.

So I am going to let my husband check them out first. And I'm not mentioning them by name until he has vetted them. But if they turn out to be what they claim to be and especially if they help us recover from this without needing to reformat the hard drive, I will not only post about them, I will plant their link in my side bar. I might even join them myself so that I have someone to go to for help when my husband isn't available, i.e. when he is at work or asleep which he is eighty percent of the time I am on the computer.

I can see now how educating myself on safe Internet surfing and Web ethics has to become part of my project of promoting my work. I have definitely learned about one type of self-promotion that has all the slimy qualities that I was raised to believe all self-promotion was tainted with. I definitely want to be sure that I do not contribute in any way to promoting that kind of promotional behavior. Neither by using the services of those who provide it nor by being the naive victim whose bandwidth, CPU resources and RAM are stolen along with peace of mind, sleep, time and energy to facilitate someone else's profit margin. Whether that profit margin is page ranking or dollars doesn't matter, it is ill-gotten gain and if it is not technically criminal, it should be.

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