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My colleague’s computer nightmare began one night when he noticed his home Internet broadband connection was dead. He called his service provider, and was told that his service was shut down because of unusually heavy activity coming from his computer. Puzzled, he ran a virus check program, which told him that he had nasty stuff on his machine that the virus software couldn’t do anything about. Poking around on his hard drive, he saw that various scripts — small software programs that perform specialized tasks — had hijacked his computer and were routing Web page requests through it. My colleague, who can be fairly described as a geek, wasn’t alone. Millions of computer users around the world are in similar straits, with their PCs seemingly on autopilot doing the work of some malevolent master. “Zombies,” as these infected PCs are often called, are blamed for the late January attack on the Web site of The SCO Group, a small Utah-based software company that Linux users accuse of trying to squelch the “open source” software movement [" Breaking the Code"]. Approximately 90 percent of Windows PCs are infected with some form of “malware” — viruses, worms and other unwanted and harmful software, according to the Boston-based technology consultant firm The Aberdeen Group. Like my colleague, most in-house lawyers don’t usually spend too much time worrying about computer safety. You work on computers maintained by corporate IT departments. And, at least in the office, that PC resides on a network that’s protected by a firewall, and is regularly updated with the latest anti-virus software. But today’s corporate counsel also zap e-mails and wirelessly surf the Web in airport lounges and caf�s on personal laptops, unprotected by the IT department’s office PC safeguards. And, perhaps most frighteningly, executives often use the home computer in the den for important work. Most people don’t have the time or energy to keep up with every latest virus software update, or “patch,” that keeps the malware at bay — and, all too often, hackers are a jump ahead of the virus catchers. So, more than ever, computer users need to take charge of their personal computing. Hackers, unscrupulous Web sites, and peer-to-peer file-sharing networks are constantly thinking of ways to hijack computers for identity theft or other evil reasons. Or they simply want to sell their wares. Designing malware “used to be done for fun,” says Rich Mogull, a research director at the Stamford, Connecticut-based tech research firm Gartner, Inc., “but now people have figured out how to make money from this.” The most innocuous device these ne’er-do-wells have come up with is “adware.” It consists of miniprograms that, in the most benign circumstances, force annoying pop-up windows to appear when surfers visit certain sites. But there’s a darker side to adware. Some companies literally hijack Web browsers and redirect the user to other sites. A recent case against the New York-based online advertising firm WhenU.com, Inc., highlighted this sort of activity. In late December the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued an injunction against WhenU’s practice of making browsers display online ads for VisionDirect.com when surfers visited a competitor’s site, 1-800-Contacts.com. (Company officials say the order is on appeal before the 2nd Circuit.) Adware’s noxiousness, however, is minor compared to its evil twin, “spyware.” Some spyware unwittingly turns a PC into a robot that sends endless requests to Web sites, in an effort to jam them. Other programs rifle through personal files, looking for such data as banking passwords, credit card account numbers, and financial records. Some software literally records a user’s keystrokes when he enters credit card information to make an online purchase — and then sends that data to a hacker. How does spyware get into a PC? Spyware can simply load itself when a Web site is visited. The sleazier denizens of the Net, like pornography sites, are infamous for this. Or e-mail messages can contain viruses or worms that install programs. Another way these programs infiltrate PCs is when users download and install seemingly unrelated software, such as file-sharing programs like KaZaA. (Macintosh and Linux users are lucky in this regard. Spyware programs ignore them, and even if they didn’t, both operating systems require a password from a computer administrator before they’ll allow installation.) The best defense against the onslaught is to practice safe computing: First, turn the computer’s software firewall on, which bars remote entry to a PC. Windows XP has a rudimentary built-in firewall that is now turned on by default. To make sure the firewall is on, go to the Start menu, and click on control panels. Select the connection type (dial-up, local area network or high speed). Click on the “advanced” tab and make sure the choice “Protect my computer and network by limiting or preventing access to this computer from the Internet” is selected. Then, block browser pop-up windows. Internet Explorer, the ubiquitous browser, does not have a built-in blocker, but there are readily available add-ons. Many people swear by the cheekily named STOPzilla. Netscape or Mozilla users should simply enable the build-in pop-up blocker. The first two measures should keep a PC from being invaded. But it’s just as important to stay wary while online. “Free” downloadable programs should set off alarms. “Google” the program, and look at computer-user chat rooms on such reputable sites as C/Net or Slashdot.org to see if other users have experienced any problems. Geeks are not shy about ratting out bad software. Consult spy-buster.com, which features a list of known spyware and adware. Already infected? It’s time for PC antibiotics. If your computer is slowing down or the hard drive is churning a lot, or if Web surfing is bringing up lots of strange pages and ads, it’s a good sign that the PC is an unwitting host. When this happens, it’s time to buy a comprehensive Internet security software package like Norton Systemworks or McAfee VirusScan. It should do two things: Keep the bad spyware out via a robust firewall, and search the PC’s hard drive for viruses, worms, and spyware. Make sure you’re running the latest versions, and keep track of online updates. Big Internet service providers like America Online or Earthlink also supply spyware blockers to subscribers. When on the road for business, make sure your laptop’s security is up to snuff. Travelers have gotten used to the cheap wireless access offered by Starbucks, McDonald’s, airlines and hotels, but those Wi-Fi (for “wireless fidelity”) connections aren’t very secure. If you’re connecting to the office network for e-mail and other work-related tasks, make sure that network administrators have set your computer up to use a virtual private network (VPN). By doing this, you “tunnel” through the Wi-Fi network to your company’s system; it provides an additional layer of security by requiring passwords, and encrypting any communication with the network. With any luck, you’ll be able to avoid my colleague’s fate. After his sobering experience, a firewall is up and intercepting the bad guys, and he regularly scans his hard disk for files that shouldn’t be there. He says he hasn’t gotten rid of every mysterious file that lives on his laptop’s drive, but, for now, the zombies are at bay. Anthony Paonita, executive editor of Corporate Counsel , was formerly American Lawyer Media’s director of desktop publishing.

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