Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Software Predators

Mom 85.1 called me this morning, and she was frustrated and upset.

Mom, among her peer group (people who started using computers later in life), has good computer skills. When things go wrong, though, sometimes she doesn't have the experience in obscure PC knowledge to fix them.

There are lots of people like my mom, who enjoys using computers but doesn't understand why they have to be so complicated--because, if you haven't used computers before, they are complicated. When anything goes wrong, they go from fun to being arcane and obscure.

And sometimes, companies make them obscure for predatory reasons.

There's a fantastic application called TeamViewer that we use so that I can take control of Mom's system remotely and help her fix things. It's much easier to help her when I see what she's seeing instead of having her describe it to me, because there is so much detail on a computer screen that it can be difficult to choose what's important.

As soon as I can see her desktop, I know that something has gone quite wrong, because instead of Google search, I'm starting at a search engine "powered by"

Ah, you Java (Oracle) assholes.

When you install Java, there's a shitty attempt by Java to cram the toolbar down your throat, and you have to opt out or it gets installed.

Why does that matter? Well, in a functional sense, returns search results where they don't distinguish between ads and actual information. That means that when you do a search with Ask, the first eight results might be ads, but you won't be able to tell that.

That's garbage, and incredibly unethical, but it gets worse. There is a long, long list of third party programs (many of them from a sleazy company called "Mindspark") that will install the Ask toolbar/browser crap and change your home page without your consent.

Want to get rid of the toolbar?

I figured it would be relatively straightforward--there must be a program installed that I can uninstall, right? I checked and there's nothing. Then I looked in Chrome browser extensions and didn't see anything about Ask. There were only two extensions installed (one of which I installed for her). That should have been a clue (I'm an idiot), but I ran right past it.

Thus began a long, long trip down various rabbit holes. Deep rabbit holes.

Here's the non-cursing version: there are a ton of extensions/programs that will install the toolbar and hijack your browser without your consent. And when you try to remove it, there will be no entries for Ask in the installed programs list.

The answer, if I had been thinking more astutely, was in the second installed extension in the browser. It was something called "Rage Radio" (more assholes), and one of its "functions" is to install the toolbar.

Cutting out the boring in-between stuff, if you ever get in this situation and want to get out of it, here are some basic steps to take:
1. Download a program called AdwCleaner (you can read about it at the link). It will clean all kinds of garbage out of your system.
2. Go into the settings for your browser, and reset your home page. In Chrome, I could actually delete the entry.
3. You probably have some extension you don't remember installing in your browser. If you only have a few extensions, it won't be difficult to find the rogue and uninstall it, but if you have many, it will be more difficult. You can Google everything (in a separate system, since Ask hijacked your computer's browser) and find out which ones are basically crap and should be uninstalled.
4. There's an obscure setting in Java that will let you turn off "sponsored" software, believe it or not. Go here to set it properly.

If you want all the details of how slimy Oracle is behaving, go here: A close look at how Oracle installs deceptive software with Java updates.

Mom's system is fixed now, but none of this should have happened in the first place.

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