The Dangers of Loaning Your Laptop

I recently worked on a Microsoft Windows XP based laptop for a young female college undergraduate at the request of her parents. The system was reported to be running “slow” and not able to access DVD media. I picked up the laptop and brought it to my home office for examination while the family took their holiday vacation together.

Suspecting the typical Microsoft operating system slow-down with usage and time I began examining the system. Right off I noticed the anti-virus package was an older version. I also noticed that the virus signatures were not up to date, which even this older version should be getting automatically. Also, this older anti-virus version did not have web browser protection. Suspecting an infection had gotten through the not-up-to-date anti-virus I rebooted the laptop with a Linux CD and ran a scan of the drive using Linux based anti-virus software that one can use to check Windows based computers. There is no need for anti-virus for a desktop Linux PC itself that is configured with typical privilege separation where the user does not run everything as an administrator (root).

The scan did find a web based infection that one can get from viewing cracked web sites with an unprotected web browser. A bit of research showed that this infection had likely come from someone viewing cracked pornography sites and/or cracked “social networking” pages. I knew the people paying for this repair, the parents, would want to know how this happened so I took the extra step of checking the browser history. Sure enough someone had used this laptop to view FaceBook pages. But someone had also used this laptop to view pornography sites.

This posed a dilemma. This family is definitely not pro-pornography. The young lady that owns the laptop is an adult but her parents are footing her bills, including the cleanup of this laptop. I seriously doubted that the young female had been viewing the type of pornography I found. So, should I pull the young lady aside and tell her about how the infection likely happened? Should I just tell her parents? Should I say nothing about the pornography sites at all? After thinking this over I decided the best policy would to be to explain to them all at the same time what I discovered and give my suggestions about how to prevent it in the future.

I cleaned up the laptop then installed the latest release of “free” AVG. I also got the latest release of Firefox and installed NoScript on it. The DVD problem turned out to be a lack of DVD software so I installed the DVD software that was included with the laptop. The system needed and received a tweak to fix DVD DMA (Direct Memory Access) so DVD videos would play smoothly. After running a full system scan with the new AVG install the laptop was ready to deliver.

When the family returned from their vacation I delivered the laptop and explained what I had found and about using Firefox with NoScript. I asked the young lady if she ever allowed anyone else to use her laptop. I can imagine if you ever went to college or you have children you know the answer. Yes, she allowed “friends” to use her laptop. One of those “friends” had broken her trust and used the laptop to browse these pornography sites, something about which she was obviously upset and embarrassed. She had a good idea who it was but the damage had already been done. In any case, she would have to handle this embarrassing, to her, problem when she returned to college.

What is the moral of this story? I am not attempting to point out the evils and destructive nature of pornography, although that is part of the problem here. No, what I want people to get from this is loaning out one’s computer to “friends” can cause one real problems. Problems that can cost one money to get repaired and/or potentially cause legal problems. Especially college undergraduates should think twice before allowing “friends” to borrow one’s laptop. In the event that this laptop had shown access to child pornography and laws had been passed to require me to report that to law enforcement I, or any technician working on this laptop, would have had to report it or break the law.

The Bottom Line: College people be very cautious about loaning out your computers to “friends”. You cannot know what they will do with it while you are not watching.

Edit Tue Jan 13 17:27:50 UTC 2009: Fix a typographical error.

Edit Wed Jan 14 20:24:41 UTC 2009: Fix problem with free AVG URL.

Edit Thu Jan 15 19:17:21 UTC 2009: Clarify the DVD DMA sentence.

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