A letter on behalf of the world's PC fixers

I was going to contribute to Stewart Mitchell’s request for horror stories about computer repair people; then I was completely diverted by a panic phone call from an old friend, which helped me to realise that I was far more of a repairer than a customer of repairers.

That 72 hours of raw-edged panic was quite enough for me to focus on the sins of those who come and ask for help, which can be every bit as difficult as the sins of the fixers. So pardon me while I abuse the Pro blogs to let my friend know how I felt about her approach to the whole sorry matter.

Dear Mildred (name changed to protect the innocent here),

It was delightful to hear about your holiday in Kuala Lumpur, for 20 minutes, before you got around to mentioning that you had brought back a DVD burned for you by a charismatic local photographer and thrown it in that laptop you obtained from me six months or more ago.  It was sadly not surprising to hear that once that DVD had been introduced to the laptop, you had laid yourself wide open to every hacker and script kiddie on the planet. The parts I did find surprising then came so thick and fast that I was barely able to assemble a coherent reply, so let's unpack all your assumptions and deal with them item by item, now that facts can take precedence over emotional blackmail.

- No, it doesn't matter how you imagine viruses work: they will not be amenable to persuasion, they will do what they like. Responses like "that seems a bit far-fetched" won't get your laptop fixed, or keep the hackers away. After the initial, invisible infection has granted the underworld open access to your PC, they are unlikely to steal your personal data - you're not rich enough - but they will sell off access to your machine, for a relative pittance, to much less accomplished hackers. It's their lesser efforts you can see, and they're just evidence of the basic high-quality infection.

- No, you can't sue AVG. You put a physical piece of storage in your DVD drive and clicked on various dialog boxes, some of which you neither understood, nor can now remember, because you wanted to get at the content on the disk. Once you do that, it's game over.

- No, I am not responsible for everything that befalls something I once owned. It is now your laptop and your responsibility. Curiously, I am not sitting around at home doing nothing waiting for machines to die, and there is no way that you can cajole, seduce or otherwise influence me to "just spend ten minutes on it". There are two reasons for this. One is that it's perfectly clear that if I do touch it, I will never hear the end of the matter for as long as I live. The other is that once you stuck that DVD in there and started saying "yes, OK" to every resulting dialog box, you sank the whole thing. It doesn't take 10 minutes to sort that out; it requires a complete machine reload to properly guarantee the infection is history.

- No, there is no neat and handy way I've been keeping secret that allows you to retain your extensive collection of stolen software licences loaded on that laptop. It's even possible (but unlikely) that one of those copies you downloaded from total strangers via BitTorrent was actually the source of infection, not the DVD from that far-off and well-known training school for global cybercrime supercriminals. But you don't believe that possibility either, so that's me told good and proper. I personally remember all those nights in the 90's when your standard response to any creative suggestion was "that's great, but don't tell anyone else so they can't steal your idea" - rampant hypocrisy always offends me, especially when the software you've stolen is used to maintain your creative business. Perhaps you wouldn't be in this dire situation if you had actually paid for the things you use (and therefore could reinstall them), even paying for a decent image-based backup program would have saved your bacon. Just because I use one and recommend it to everyone doesn't mean it must therefore be nerdy and incomprehensible so you shouldn’t touch it.

- Don't worry. I don't propose to identify the specific products you don't have licences for, mainly because I think the whole business of what's free and what's not is now so murky and confused that I don't think you are even doing anything special these days. It's not something I will involve myself in, though, which is in part why I am more tilted towards the hardware business, than software, these days. I have gone about as far as I can here to make it clear why your approach to the way your laptop drives your business, mixed with your approach to the way that people in the computer business sell things to you, adds up to a disaster waiting to happen. And I do disaster recovery, not disaster participation.

Love and kisses,

Steve

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