Philadelphia Metropolis


The Case of the Curious Icon

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By Christopher H. BaumNew Computer Guy.jpg

It was just staring back at me, the small icon in the middle of my desktop on my work computer. I hadn't installed it on purpose, but there it was right in the middle of the screen. What's more, it didn't have a label associated with it. There was no way to tell what it was.

I couldn't click on it. I tried automatically rearranging the other icons on my sparsely occupied Windows desktop. They all lined up neatly, except the stranger. It sat there, mocking me.

I have more than 30 years experience with microcomputers. I sold Apple IIs from one of the first computer stores in the country; the now long-shuttered ByteShop Brentwood, near Hollywood. I have a hardware firewall on the router; firewall and antivirus software on each computer on the network. The house WiFi is encrypted and the routers are all password protected and have non-standard Internet addresses. On top of that, I run additional antispyware and antimalware scans religiously. I am careful about links I click, websites I visit, and software I download. And no one uses this particular computer but me.

I checked the other house computers. My wife's netbook was ok; she mostly uses her work computer or her iPad anyway. The downstairs computer was also fine. I had reinstalled Windows on my younger son's laptop when he was home on winter break, so that was clean. My older son, already back on base after a quick Christmas leave, had reported no issues with his system. In other words, no help there.

I couldn't right click it, either. Then I tried an area select on the desktop. Nothing.

I launched the task manager. Nothing unexpected in the Applications tab. I Googled a few suspect items from the Processes tab, but everything came back clean. The services were ok. Back on the Processes tab, I sorted by CPU usage. Whatever it was, it wasn't consuming many CPU cycles. It wasn't taking up much memory, either. In fact, nothing unusual in the overall performance.

This particular computer is a tablet hybrid. I reconfigured the video and pulled it from the docking station. The offending icon stayed put.

I closed all the software and performed a shut down. I even popped the battery out of the back. I restarted in Safe Mode. It was still there.

Okay, this had crossed the line from annoying to intriguing. What was it? I'd spent eight years a research analyst for Gartner, Inc. I'd advised governments all over the world about the IT security matters. This particular piece of work was impressive.

I placed the computer back into its cradle and restarted it in normal mode. Still there.

I was a little perplexed. I couldn't find the code. It must be small, elegant even. But why the icon on the desktop? Certainly any programmer talented enough to do this could hide it in Windows without leaving a trace. Was it a warning? Perhaps it was a signature, so he or she could know at a glance that they had infected a system. Most likely, it was a taunt. A hacker's way of saying "I'm smarter than you."

I started combing the security firm forums, trying to see if anyone else was having a similar issue. I did a scan of news stories. I checked all the mainstream sources, and a few that are a little more off the grid. No one had heard of anything even remotely similar.

An idea occurred to me. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo movie had just been released; the movie features the exploits of a computer hacker. Was this some kind of viral marketing campaign? It wouldn't be the first time that a stunt had had unintended consequences. In 2007, a publicity stunt by the makers of Aqua Teen Hunger Force on Cartoon Network nearly caused a panic in Boston. They had placed battery-powered LCD displays featuring characters from the show on highway overpasses and other areas. Passersby saw the devices and mistook them for bombs. Was this the software equivalent? If it was, no one was taking credit, or blame. At least, not yet.

I'd spent hours on this. It didn't seem to be doing anything, just sitting there. But now it was a matter of pride. I'd decontaminated plenty of systems for friends and family over the years. This was not going to beat me.

I decided to examine it more closely. I put on my reading glasses, a recent acquisition. I bent to look more closely at it. It was only then that I realized what it was. It was a smudge. I reached out and gently scraped it off the screen protector with my fingernail. And hung my head in shame.


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