Everyone who takes anything in to be repaired is a little nervous unless they are extremely good friends with the shop they are visiting. It doesn’t matter if it is your computer or your car, your mind runs through all the things that could go wrong, get damaged, or stolen. With your car, the dangers are pretty straight forward, but with your computer, you may not really think about the dangers lurking at your local computer store.
Sure, there is the threat of losing all your programs and data which we all think about. It turns out that this is probably the least likely threat we will face. If you read the news we are inundated with Best Buy’s Geek Squad being used by the FBI to sift through your data, steal your pictures, or worse. A simple visit to websites like RipOffReport.com will scare the mess out of most people.
Unfortunately a lot of companies using questionable practices will not show up in the news as prominently as the larger companies. Many of us will not check the reviews of companies with places such as the BBB online, Google, or Facebook. So what do we need to look out for when taking our computer in for repairs?
Unwanted software installation
When a computer company installs software you didn’t ask for and they didn’t discuss with you there is a problem. Even if that software supposedly will help your computer run better, or protect you from spyware/viruses/etc. I have spent the past fifteen or so years charging client to remove this type of software (Dell, HP, I am looking at you). Why, you might ask? Because of two reasons: there are potential side effects and it more likely they installed it to make sure they can make more money off you. Let’s talk about each.
Suppose a company installs a piece of software that blocks those nasty ads you see all over the web. This also makes browsing the internet faster because your web browser does not have to load all those ads. Sounds good, right? Not so fast.
Ad blockers can change the way pages load, in theory making it harder to read some pages.When an ad is removed that space may collapse and text flows into that spot, making it appear in places that the web developer never intended. Nothing like trying to read scrambled text. This is however fairly rare in the real world.
They also prevent you from reading articles from many major news outlets (and a lot of smaller websites too) who block people with ad blockers. This is becoming more and more common but has a simple fix, just disable the program on that one website. The computer technician who installed this software did show you how to put in exclusions, turn it on and off, and put in specific sites into the whitelist, right?
Lastly, an ad blocker actually takes money away from online content publishers who use the ads to put food on their tables. They do not get paid to write the article (or the company that hires the writers does not get paid except through advertising). While you may not care about this, the more ad blockers that are out there the more intrusive they make the advertising to combat the blockers. It is a vicious circle.
Now I am not saying to not use an ad blocker, I use one sometimes, but it should be the customer’s informed decision not some wanna be nerd in the back who thinks all advertising is bad and everything in life should be free. This way the person installing the ad blocker knows it is there, knows how to access the settings and knows where to get help when they need it. They don’t just run into a news article they want to read and get blocked with no explanation and no recourse.
The same holds true with software that “protects” you from viruses and spyware. Why would a computer repair company give this away and not talk to you about it? Do you go around giving stuff away for no reason without telling the person you gave it to?
What about software that runs in the background looking for problems, and then alerts you or the computer company when it finds one? Not only is this software making your computer run slower by using CPU cycles and memory, it is also giving that company a way into your computer without your consent. What do I mean? Most of this software can be updated and add additional features remotely, without your knowledge. Background installations of unwanted software is called an infection and it is the reason people take their computers in to get them repaired in the first place.
Not to mention the fact that the software they installed may alert you of a “problem” that really isn’t a problem at all, but the computer company needed a little boost in revenue this week and so you are it. Don’t think this happens? Do a little reading on the internet and you will find out that false claims of problems or infections on your computer is one of the top ways scammers use to milk you for money. Don’t fall for it.
Remote support software
It seems convenient when you have a problem that your technician can just remote right in and take a look. Generally you can click on a link on a web page and that will download and run the software needed to connect the technician. Unfortunately there is an alarming number of technicians who want to install a piece of software on your computer which runs all the time and allows this to connect to your computer without you having to go to the website and click a link.
Why is this alarming? Start with the fact that it too uses computer resources such as CPU and memory which makes your computer slower. It is also constantly talking to its servers telling them whether it is online and connected to the internet or not. This is not much, but if you are on a metered connection such as a satellite or cellular connection it can cost you, literally.
In addition, every technician has their own favorite which means you can wind up with conflicts. Assume your accountant wants to run TeamViewer 11 but your computer company uses TeamViewer 10. If you install the host program on your computer for TeamViewer 11 then the person with TeamViewer 10 can not connect. This forces your account to run an older host, or your computer company to spend a substantial amount of money buying upgrades.
They can also conflict with each other. I once saw a customer’s PC that had TeamViewer installed from their accountant, ScreenConnect from their IT guy, GoTo MyPC so they could access it from home, and Log Me In from one of their software vendors. Nothing worked. I don’t know what did what to whom, but once I uninstalled them all the PC ran fine again.
Lastly, remember that when this software is installed the computer company can remote in at any time and do anything they want. Just like above you may implicitly trust your tech, but do you trust your tech’s cleaning lady’s ten year old son who uses the computer company’s computers when no one is there?
It is just too easy for you to go click that one link, or double click the icon I may put on your desktop that allows remote access right then, but does not keep running once I disconnect.
All this extra software the technician installed also increases your “attack surface”. The simple explanation of this is that the more software you have installed, the more likely one of them has a flaw that will allow a hacker/virus access to your computer. Ask any computer specialist and they will tell you the first thing they do to make a computer more secure is uninstall unnecessary software and turn off unneeded services (software built into the operating system).
Short of a server in a business environment, or a special circumstance that both you and your technician agree upon, there is no reason your repair person should have software installed on your computer. Personally, I install remote access software and sometimes monitoring software on servers when I have the owner’s permission, and almost never on individual workstations unless there is a seriously compelling reason. The customer’s privacy and the best possible performance of their computer trumps any convenience to me installing such software may provide.
Keeping copies of your data
It is not at all uncommon for a technician to “clone” your hard drive. This makes an exact duplicate of your programs and data as a backup, or as a method of transferring data. Think of it as a Xerox copy of your hard drive. There is generally nothing wrong with this.
The question becomes what do that do with that clone once your machine is repaired and delivered back to you. Sometimes it is not a bad idea to keep that copy for a little while just in case something went wrong with the repair that the technician did not see. Suppose a critical document is missing and that clone is the only way to get it back. So keeping the clone for a little while makes perfect sense.
How about if they make a clone and keep it for a week, a month, or even a year? How long do you want your data laying around in their back office where anyone can browse through it and read or view all your stuff? Sure, maybe you completely trust the technician who worked on your computer, but how about the other people who work there? The cleaning staff? The kids of employees or cleaning crew?
What about keeping the data just for a business and not a individual? So now instead of the data for one person we have data related to an entire company which may include banking, payroll, and even trade secrets. Keeping business data is even worse than keeping an individual’s data because it could potentially affect dozens of people instead of just one.
This is just a little taste of what disreputable computer companies, or companies that are very reputable but just don’t think past their own self-interest, may do. Protect yourself and if something shows up that wasn’t there before, find out what it is an ask for it to be removed. You spent good money on your technology devices, don’t let someone else benefit from your hard work.