The canary in your computer

Canary in a Coal Mine

The Computer Corner

By Charles Miller

Animal sentinels, or sentinel species, are animals that can provide advance warning of danger. The classic example is the canary in the coal mine. Miners used to bring canaries into coal mines knowing they would quickly become sick and die in the presence of toxic gasses. From this etymology, the word canary has entered the lexicon of computer terms.

The existence of massive, over-reaching government surveillance programs that spy on all of our communications has been headline news for the last two years. To thwart the secrecy imposed by the USA Patriot Act, some companies have resorted to using a “warrant canary” to communicate to their users that, so far, they have not been subject to a secret subpoena to turn over their customers’ emails or other private information. If the canary disappears, then the situation has changed, and the company may now be under a gag order. In 2013, Apple became the first major company to do this when it placed this warrant canary on its apple.com web site:

“Apple has never received an order under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. We would expect to challenge such an order if served on us.”

Everyone who owns a computer should learn that it comes complete with a different kind of canary, and I will tell you where to look for it. There are, in fact, two of them found in your web browser (Internet Explorer, Safari, Chrome, etc.)

When you click on the icon to start your web browser to surf the Internet, your browser should start with your home page. That page is often your email account, the weather, or your favorite news source. That page is a canary. Before I explain further, permit me to point out the second canary. Whenever you use your browser to search for anything, you are using your default search engine, which for most users is Google, Yahoo, Bing, or one of many others.

The first thing many virus and malware infections do is change your home page and/or default search engine. So these are your two canaries. If one day you click on the icon to start your browser and an unfamiliar page, such as Ask.com or MyStart, comes up instead of your regular home page, that means your canary died! Likewise, if you search for something online and receive results from CoolWebSearch or OneWebSearch instead of your regular search engine, your canary is telling you with its dying peep that you have been hacked!

Examples of hijacking malware are Astromenda, Babylon, Binkiland, Conduit Search, Delta Search, GoSave, Groovorio, Mindspark, RocketTab, Searchassist, Search-daily, Searchgol.com, Searchnu.com, Snap.do, Taplika, Trovi, Tuvaro, Vosteran, and too many others to list because the names keep changing.

If your canary warns you that your computer has been invaded, you need to take action without delay. Because many infections also disable your antivirus to avoid detection, you are at greater risk of other troubles.

Oh, in case you are a user of Apple products or their email and messaging services, that warrant canary on the apple.com web site … it is not there anymore.

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981, and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 415 101 8528 or email FAQ8 (at) SMAguru.com.

 

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