• United States

Getting rid of scumware. Mostly.

May 04, 20044 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsMalware

* Backspin columnist Mark Gibbs shares his favorite error message sent in by a reader

A few weeks ago I was discussing anomalous error messages and reader Aaron Wayman sent in the following Windows error text:

“While validating that COM2 was really a serial port, the contents of the divisor latch register was identical to the interrupt enable and the receive registers. The device is assumed not to be a serial port and will be deleted.”

Reader Mark Rice contributed a Veritas NetBackup error message:

“ERROR: invalid error number.”

Reader John Day came up with my favorite of all, which requires a little explanation:

“ARPANet [Terminal Interface Processors] were a bit like what an X.25 PAD became. . . . BBN got the bright idea to give it better capability and support a much richer user interface. Good idea. But its standard error message was: “won’t.” Not can’t. Just won’t.

Anyway, where were we? Oh yes, for the past two weeks I’ve written about spyware, and last week gave you a simple model for figuring out what spyware might cost you. And it seems from your letters that the spyware problem is even bigger than many of us believed!

Reader Michael Dunn reported that there are many “legitimate sites that aid scumware vendors in their endeavors by bundling spyware on downloads, or hosting ActiveX or Java code that exploits visitor’s browsers. More importantly, many of these scumware providers are violating federal laws and exploiting children with their ‘products’.”

Dunn has seen something that should be a serious concern to any organization: “The biggest problem we have encountered are the ‘adware’ products that serve up pop-up windows. We have seen repeated instances of this kind of scumware serving up pornography, which is particularly disturbing when it shows up on computers serving young children. This is a blatant violation of federal and local pornography statues, but little is being done.”

He concludes that, despite maintaining a router blocklist and spending lots of time and effort to prevent and block scumware, “like spam, it’s a losing fight.”

I think we’re all feeling Dunn’s pain. First we had viruses, then spam, now it’s adware and spyware. Each new wave of problems has cost us time, money, handfuls of hair and, for those of us so inclined, really bad hangovers.

What this tells me is four things. First, IT is indispensable in this whole mess. After spyware and adware will come something else and after that something else again. Only the expertise of professional IT people can hold back the chaos.

Second, as I have written before, legislation cannot significantly address the scumware problem. Even so, huge amounts of time and money will inevitably be wasted trying to legislate against it. Just ignore the politicians behind the curtain.

Third, while user education is helpful, it can only help to a limited degree. Users hardly understand how their computers do the most basic tasks so any illusions you might have about them figuring out that they should not load this free toolbar or that cute screen saver are totally wasted.

Fourth and finally, technology caused the problem, technology will solve it. Whether it will be through anti-scumware utilities, better client-side management or some other method, technology will reduce the problem to a manageable level. I say manageable because the problem can’t be solved any more definitively than can the problems of viruses or spam.

The most important thing you can do about scumware is learn how your organization is being affected and keep up with the best practices for solving the problem as it evolves. Good luck, and rest assured you are going to have a job for a long time to come.

Hold the scumware but forward your thoughts to


Mark Gibbs is an author, journalist, and man of mystery. His writing for Network World is widely considered to be vastly underpaid. For more than 30 years, Gibbs has consulted, lectured, and authored numerous articles and books about networking, information technology, and the social and political issues surrounding them. His complete bio can be found at

More from this author