Friday, March 26, 2010

Safe browsing and virus removal

Sometimes you have to use Windows. There might be a game you like that only runs there or you might need a Windows-only program for work. Whatever it is that draws you to Windows, you know going in that you run the risk of your system becoming compromised (becoming a "zombie," getting a key-logger or any number of other harmful scenarios). OS/X is starting to feel the heat of increased market share as well, in case Mac fans thought they were somehow immune. In 2009 and now in 2010, Mac/OS + Safari did quite poorly in a challenge to compromise browsers. My brother just recently got some sort of malware that caused him to spam the family with bogus links, and I put together this overview of what to do in response. In case it's useful to others, here you go:


1) Always use Firefox to browse the web (Safari and Chrome are getting there, but currently don't have the suite of helpful and stable plugins that Firefox does)
2) Always use the noscript plugin for Firefox and add exceptions with care
3) If you're going to visit a site that might be questionable, use the "Tools -> Start Private Browsing" feature

Doing anything less is roughly equivalent to going on a sex tour of the third world without condoms. That's not a pretty metaphor, but neither is having your system infected with every bot this side of Robbie from Forbidden Planet.

As for cleaning your existing system... it's hard. The best and safest way is to back up your data and then use the re-install/recovery disks that came with the computer. If you want a less drastic approach (that isn't as guaranteed to work), then I suggest one of these resources:

AntiVir removal tool -- Avira, makers of my favorite free antivirus tool
McAfee Virus Removal Tools -- McAfee (about $90)
Symantec Removal Tools -- Symantec removal tools (free?)

I suggest figuring out what you have first. AntiVir, McAfee or Symantec can be used to do a full scan, and should turn this up. If not, try a malware removal tool like Spybot Search and Destroy SpyBot Search and Destroy (but be careful if you do a Web search for it... don't click on ads, and make sure you spelled it correctly).

To keep yourself safe in the future, make sure you have an up-to-date virus scanning tool (AntiVir has a free version that pops up a single ad for their product only, per day, asking you to buy the full version and there are paid programs from Symantec and McAfee). Also, make sure that you run the latest version of your browser (Firefox will auto-update with security fixes, but you should upgrade to the latest major version at least once every 6 months). Don't use IE. but if you really must, make sure it's updated to the very latest version. Microsoft's track record for keeping old browsers secure isn't very good.

Beyond that, consider doing everything that isn't Windows-specific in a virtual machine. You can get an easy-to-use virtual machine manager at and then download the install image for Ubuntu Linux and load it up in the virtual machine. This allows you to do things that would otherwise be unsafe in Windows within a safer environment. It's cumbersome, but the security return on your investment is well worth it.