Who’s Computer is it Anyway?

March 8, 2013 at 9:15 pm (computers, internet, security) (, , , , , )

I’ve been having ‘fun’ recently.  A friend had a laptop that was provided under the, now defunct, UK Government Home Access scheme.  This scheme provided a laptop to people in order to help get them into computers and online, and I believe the whole thing was set up Becta?

Anyway, these laptops came from certain suppliers – Comet and Misco were involved I believe – and had an ‘out of the box’ secure setup with anti-malware, parental controls and so on all pre-installed and pre-configured.  All well and good.  Until the scheme goes defunct and the computers are out of warranty and the suppliers no longer want to know.  In fact I think even Becta is no more?

So, here we have a computer with parent and child accounts and a special account to set it all up.  The Internet filter is protected by a password as is the special account.  I assume this was some kind of protection against ‘government scheme free computers used for surfing porn’ headline in the future.  All well and good, but the subscriptions to these services have now lapsed.  So they are blocking sensible websites, updating the machine is really getting problematical and my friend has reached the point where quite honestly she is ready just to chuck the whole lot in the bin.  Can I do anything about it?

Well I can’t stand seeing a decent PC go to waste and don’t mind a bit of a challenge.  At the end of the day I’m sure the Internet can provide.  If I can’t rescue their installation then Ubuntu or similar beckons, but as I don’t want to be administering this PC for ever and she is a non-technical user, I’ll see if I can unclutter her Windows 7 installation first.

Searching for default admin passwords gives some ideas but none of them work.  So permissions is finally solved with a bootable Knoppix CD and chntpw.  I now have an Adminstrator account, so to start tidying it all up.

Well the main hurdle is the Net Intelligence filter software.  Removal is password protected from main and safe mode.  There are some instructions on the Internet though, so taking a copy of the excellent autoruns tool from Mark Russinovich’s SysInternals suite, I set about finding all the references that make it start on boot.  But it sure clung on for dear life and put up quite a fight!

I still can’t actually physically uninstall it, well using appwiz.cpl anyway – I might head straight to the disk, but it no longer appears to run, so fingers crossed that is no more.

All of this got me thinking a bit more about who actually owns our devices these days.  Taking the obvious reply of ‘a hacker?’ out for a moment, so assuming we aren’t compromised by someone nefarious, how compromised are we by a third party company or organisation who, in reality, we don’t really know anything about.  There are lots of people who’d like to own your device – your communications provider, your device manufacturer, the people who wrote the operating system, the people who own the tools you use, your bank, those who own the online services you use … the list is endless (anyone remember the Sony rootkit saga?).

In this case the organisation set up the machine with a whole host of locked-in services and tools that ceased to work properly once their default 1 year was up.  Most PCs ship with something similar, although the difference with this scheme was that it wasn’t easy to turn them off.  So they were given a PC, but then not given a PC …

But what about your games console?  Your mobile?  Your TV?  Your Car? Do you actually really own any of that technology yourself?  Not really.  Not anymore.

I’m ready a good book at the moment (albeit slowly – I don’t seem to find much time to finish it) – Jonathan Zittrain’s ‘The Future of the Internet’.  He has a lot to say on the subject of how the Internet came to be and how a generative network (the openess of the Internet) and generative platform (a generic PC) led to the current situation of tools, services and uses that no-one could have imagined when these basic building blocks of networks and computers were originally being designed.

However, we are on the cusp of a problem looming.  In the interests of ownership, control or simply a desire for something shiny that ‘just works’ we are willing to sacrifice some of the key technological principles that gave us what we have today.  I’ve just seen part of the problems such things can cause in trying to untangle the mess left behind by the well-intentioned, but now defunct, scheme that brought that laptop to my door.

If that is a sign of things to come, then the future does not bode well on the current trajectory.  We’ll probably get away with it while our interests are aligned enough with the likes of Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and so on (notice I say ‘enough’ – they aren’t really aligned – these are companies seeking to make money from us all naturally).  But once those interest diverge, we’ll all be a bit stuck.

Open systems are definately our best hope, but they can’t really compete with ‘shiny’.




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