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Computer safety for seniors (and others) - [virtual] - Friendly Fire Edition

The surest strategy for avoiding automobile accidents is to stay home. Never drive a car, never ride in a car, never walk on or near a paved surface. But even people sitting on the sofa watching Matlock re-runs have been known to have a car plow into them. You may extend that analogy to computer software if you like.

Plow beneath the orange antimassar for the grizzly details. And, hopefully, some bear-traps. Or at least some bear-avoidance tips.

Windows users may want to pay especially close attention.

How would you like to have an application that gives you the local weather. And the latest news. And the scores of your team's games. And advice on buying things. And a new and improved search engine. And a swell home page. Or maybe you'd like an application that scours the internet looking for coupons. No? Me neither. I don't much like using coupons in the checkout line. And I don't see the point of using them online.

So why would a program like one of those end up on my (non-linux) computer? I didn't ask for it. Or maybe I did.

When you download and install a program--free or paid--you agree to things. The EULA (End User License Agreement) or "Shrinkwrap" license sets out the rules for the ways you are allowed to use and to not use the software. Now be honest (with yourself), have you read the EULA for each and every piece of personal-use software you've ever installed? Congratulations! You either have very little software, or esoteric taste in reading, as well as lots and lots of time.

I think I'm supposed to tell you about now that you should always read the EULA. OK, I will, you should always read the EULA. After all, you could be agreeing to give away your first born, your car, or your seventh grandchild in exchange for using the program. After all, even if the EULA reads like a Dickens-era lawyer's wish list that no civilized society would tolerate if actually enforced, there is the possibility of the Republican Supreme Court upholding even the most outrageous of provisions. Especially if it's pro-corporate and anti-consumer. But if you are willing to take the risk and skim over the EULA, as a consumer, I won't condemn you.

EULAs only provide the cover for Friendly Fire. It's the Check Boxes that pull the trigger.

In a regulated industry, say investments or insurance, there are still vestiges of Roosevelt-era pro-consumer regulations. A prospectus for a new (legitimate) stock offering won't have suggestive or leading typography or wording. You won't see strings of exclamation points. No LOLs. No smiley faces. It's dry and boring on purpose. The SEC says so. Similarly, in many states, a life insurance policy is not supposed to be larded with tricks, traps and gotchas.

But any similar protections that have been extended to the world of software are watered down by lawyers, lobbyists, copy-writers and some very skilled graphics artists. And yes, such paid resourceful folk are usually (always?) only available to companies with deep pockets. But there is very little to prevent small software companies from employing the tactics these deep pockets pay for. Even developers of free software may be tempted by the, "Dark side of the force."

The force is, "Monetization."

Notice, I said nothing about, "The dark side," immediately above. Geeks gotta eat too. And if a website depends on ads for support, or programmers depend on shareware for support, who am I to begrudge them a little walking-around money.

Sometimes, though, shareware donations aren't enough to allow a programmer to put food on the family. And free software sites aren't usually laden with ads. And that's when the serpent--who is very subtile--slithers up to the programmer with a proposition:

"Just put a small check box for my suite of products and or services on your install script."

"What will it cost my users?" asks the diligent programmer.

"Not a thing!" says the serpent, "It's very subtile. Your user probably won't notice it at all."

"But won't they notice the extra icon?" says the puzzled programmer.

"That's the good part," says the serpent, We call it a "Tool Bar" and it installs itself in the browser. It's very subtile."

"What if the user doesn't like it and deletes it?" says the programmer.

"It?" says the serpent, "Ha ha ha ha ha. Let the user try. Unless the user deletes every program involved, and in the exact order required, it comes back. As I said, it's very subtile. And think of the money. Easy money. For you."

"All for me," says the programmer, as visions of a new Porsche races around the brain.

"Not all, of course, serpents need to eat too. But think about it," says the serpent, not bothering to be quite as subtile as before, "All those freeloaders finally helping to monetize your program. Your hard work."

"OK, do I sign in blood or something?" says the programmer.

"Nothing like that," says the serpent, "Just tick the box."

...

So how do you protect your computer from something like that? Or what if you suspect your computer is already host to something like that? A week ago I would have suggested the same first step for both scenarios: an online search. Thanks to personal experience, that's changed now. I still suggest an online search before installing free software. But now...

Have you ever seen ads directed to website operators for improving their position when a search engine returns its results to the user? Or a book like "Search Engine Optimization for Morons?" That's because a determined enough site owner can influence the results of a search on certain terms. And they'll pay to do it. And though the usual goal is moving the link to the top of the list, for however brief a time, the same tactics can be used to flood the first several pages with positive reviews.

Keep that in the back of your mind, while we go on with some suggestions for protecting an unpolluted machine.

Searching on the name of the program you are thinking of installing, let's say, "Rutabaga Cookie Recipe Organizer," is almost always a good idea. But how you search can make a difference. A deep search, i.e. diving below just the first page, or two or ten, can reveal some snakes in the grass that is google. If the first few pages are full of only positive reviews and those reviews often contain similar unique phrasing, it does not necessarily mean that you've stumbled upon a scam. But your spidey sense may start urging you to try some additional tactics. Using different search terms, using a different search engine, doing a 'local' search on a few expert forums, these are all possible methods to use. Remember that since searches can be skewed positively, they can also be skewed negatively.

You can also ask a friend that you consider to be a computer expert. Perhaps they have installed the same program without any noticeably dire results. But the usefulness of their positive opinion may not be as useful as you might think. Are they using stronger settings on their anti-virus and anti-spam-ware programs? Or are they using paid versions as opposed to the free ones on your machine? The same OS? The same permissions? Is their machine so fast that they don't even notice the extra drag on its resources. And perhaps most importantly, you may be asking their opinion of Rutabaga Cookie Recipe Organizer v(ersion) 11.3 while they are referring to version 10--the one available before the subtile serpent visited the programmer.

It's a good idea to know the exact size of the program you are downloading. Especially if you are downloading from a third-party site. And the exact name. "Rutabaga Cookie Recipe Organizer" is not the same as "Rutebega Cookie Recipe Organizer."

About those third-party sites: sometimes the only way to get a manual for a discontinued product, computer or otherwise, is from a a third-party site. Proceed with caution. On the openly commercial sites, you could wind up paying more for one repair manual than you would for a new replacement device. Some sites gear the affordable plans toward techs needing dozens of manuals a year. The free portion of the site may have been already visited by the subtile serpent.
Recall the bit in the intro about avoiding automobile accidents. Free software in the Linux world is still that: free. Free software in the Windows world has been, in my experience, fraught with potential peril. So here are the rules of thumb I try to use when downloading and using free software for Windows:
Come for one item--Install one item--Say No when you can
That could be especially important on Windows with some very useful but rather tricky programs that you may choose to use to download and write a linux .iso file system to dvd.

Originally posted to Senior Linux on Sun Sep 08, 2013 at 05:15 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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