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Week of 18 May 2006
I'm not all too sure about what I do
I feel I've got to stop a second just to think it through
- R Fitzsimmons
Microsoft have a new product. Relatively new. It's called Windows Defender. It's now beyond vaporware - it's betaware. For now it's free but in the end it'll cost.
You're being screwed.
Isn't Windows Defender any good? Oh yes it is - by all accounts it's a very capable spyware hunter. But it doesn't defend you. Nothing can. Not on Windows.
All Windows Defender can do is tell you after the fact that your system has been clobbered and turned into shit and that you might have to reinstall everything again.
What fun. Some defence.
It's another manifestation of Microsoft's infamous 'heroin economics': first get you addicted to something dangerous (Windows) and then make you pay through the nose to get free - except it's no fun for the pusher if you ever get free. The pusher just has to keep you believing you'll one day be free.
It's a scam.
Real Estate Agent
You're in the market for a new house. You find a classy real estate agent. They show you a great property. You could do the smart thing and come back and visit the neighbourhood at nighttime to see what kind of creeps live there but you don't do that - and with computers you can't do it anyway.
So you move in. All week long the lorries are out in front while your belongings are unloaded. Finally you're all settled and sleep for the first night in your new house.
When you wake up in the morning you find all your belongings gone. The paintings on the walls, the carpets, the jewelry, your bloody toothbrush, your wallet, your credit cards, cash, watches - the works. You're cleaned out.
You call the police, your credit card and insurance companies, and your real estate agent. The police make short order of their business; the credit card and insurance companies promise they'll reimburse you to 100%; the real estate agent is another matter entirely.
'Why didn't you tell me it was such a bad neighbourhood?' you ask the agent.
'Well it's really not that bad. All neighbourhoods are bad. This one's no worse than the rest. But we can help you protect yourself in the future.'
The real estate agent give you a line about an electronic surveillance system. The key to the system is that it has to be connected to their offices and to the police both. And that connection is a subscription. You quickly calculate that the cost of your house has doubled.
Windows is like a house in a bad neighbourhood with one subtle difference: the house has no walls, much less locks on the doors. In the world of operating systems you'd normally find successive doors at every entrance, a lock on each door, and an armed guard standing inside each one. And each time there was a knock or a scratching sound on the outside a guard would alert you and ask you how to proceed.
Real Operating Systems
Real operating systems are sometimes called 'server operating systems' because that's the way computers worked back in the old days. No one had a computer on their desk - they had a 'terminal'. The terminal was equipped with just enough RAM to hold the contents of the character mode screen display. You punched in something at the keyboard, and for every key you hit a signal was sent to the real computer most likely in another room. And that computer echoed back the characters you were typing. And when you'd finished formulating your command, you hit the Enter key and that signal too was passed onto the computer - it was the way your terminal told the computer 'do this'.
You had files on that computer - files that were your own and no one else's business. Common propriety demanded those files be accessible by you and you alone. You logged into the computer from your terminal, provided authentication for who you were, and were given access to those files. No one could get near your files and you couldn't get near theirs either. You had privacy and security.
Likewise the system itself - on that computer wherever it was - was off bounds for you - and for everyone else using the computer. The system's files could be used by you but you couldn't access them in the ordinary way you accessed your own files. The system itself was protected.
Do Try This at Home
Now look at your Windows machine. Fire up Windows Explorer and look around in your file system. Do you see an area clearly marked as yours and yours alone? What happens if someone else gains access to your computer? Can they read your most sensitive files?
Assume you're having an affair and you of course don't want your spouse to know it. Your spouse also uses the same computer. How do you stop your spouse from seeing and reading your love letters?
Can you put them in a special folder called 'PERSONAL' and so mark that folder so that you and only you can gain access to that folder?
Now how about your system itself? Your system is in two folders: 'WINDOWS' (or 'WinNT') and 'SYSTEM' (or 'system32'). Use Windows Explorer again. Can you get in there? Can you do anything once you get in there?
See if you can find a file called 'NOTEPAD.EXE'. Try renaming it. Try renaming it to 'SCRATCHPAD.EXE'. Did it work? (Don't forget to rename it back again.)
So time for the pop quiz: if you could access your own system files and muck about with them, what exactly do you presume is protecting you on that Windows system?
Standalone Isn't Secure
Windows is a standalone system. By 'standalone' is meant it's not supposed to be connected to anything. It's not a terminal; it doesn't have secure areas of the disk for each user; and it doesn't have a protected area for the system itself.
If any crook or creep could break into your house in the still of the night and rummage through your computer, what would be the result?
How much sensitive data do you have on that computer? Do you have bank account details? Credit card details? Passwords to other mail accounts? Passwords for online banking?
What will the thief walk away with?
It doesn't really matter if your insurance companies compensate you fully for that loss - you don't want that hassle all the time, do you?
Real Estate Agent Revisited
You're back on the horn to your real estate agent. You're mightily pissed. You got ripped off. You sunk all your cash and savings in your new house and first when the ink dried on the contract and you'd moved in do you find the real score. Your real estate agent have you in their vise like grip like a heroin pusher.
You're totally screwed.