It seems like a blur of over a week and nearly two weeks of wrestling with issues on my computer. I just figured I had too many tabs open in Safari, the web browser on my MacBook Pro. It was getting very slow and not running smoothly. I also began to suspected that I did not have enough space left on my hard drive. Sure enough, by the time a got to the point of deciding to sort all this out, I did see a message that there was no more hard drive space.
My MacBook Pro has a 250 GB hard drive. The formatting of a drive uses a small amount of space. The operating system (OS) uses a portion as a scratch disk to swap data in RAM. It takes data in RAM that is not currently being accessed and writes it to the hard drive. If an application is running and has a document open, when the system determines that other tasks are more important and being accessed, it will transfer the portion of RAM memory to disk and that could include the application and document. It can then be made active in RAM memory again much faster than relaunching the application and reopening document.
Thus began a long journey beginning with closing some tabs in Safari and trashing some files. I gained a small amount of space. Next, I wanted to run a utility to clean caches and do other maintenance. The program required updating to Yosemite Cache Cleaner; a new application for the new OS. Once I competed that I let it run. Each task it performed took ages to complete, even when I let it run over night. I ran other programs also, such as Disk Tools Pro, Dr. Web, Onyx, Cocktail, iBoostUp and, of course, the Apple Disk Utilities that comes with the OS. Each of those took ages and most ran over night. I managed to gain around 55 GBs of space on my hard drive, mostly from cleaning out all the caches. I could gain more by deleting a year of photos that I have backed up. The main virus checker I used was ClamXav an open source package that took over 24 hours to scan my drive of over 1.4 million files. An application may look like a single item on your computer, however, what you see is a wrapper for many smaller files that comprise the actual application. This may include other smaller applications and partially accounts for such a high number of files that need to be scanned.
A cache is a folder containing data that is used frequently. The best example is a browser cache. A web browser downloads items to display a webpage, such as images and keeps them in a cache so the webpage can load again much quicker. There are other caches that the OS uses and all of these should be clean up once in a while.
I realized that the computer going to sleep probably didn’t help, so I disabled all the Energy Saving settings and the screen saver. I couldn’t do very much as each these tools was working and I didn’t want to cause them to slow down by using up the computer’s resources. I used the Activity Monitor to make sure nothing was interfering, to look for unwanted software processes and to see what activities might be hogging the system. As the days passed, I was postponing many other chores, tasks, reminders and todos. I would be in for a long stretch of catch-up once I was through this mess.
To complicate whole process I was going through, there were problems with my computer not waking up. The result was that many times I had to do a forced shutdown and restart the computer. This would mean restarting whatever utility I had been running and the long process that had been interrupted. These were certainly irksome set-backs that frustrated me even more. Forcing a shutdown without letting the system close properly was probably adding some issues.
I eventually checked on the Apple website and learned how to reset the System Management Controller (SMC) and the Non-volitile Random Access Memory (NVRAM). I used to reset this years ago, however, it was known as Parameter RAM (PRAM). This sort of fixed the not waking-up problem for a while, but it returned, probably because I had not yet caught all the culprits yet.
Finally, I noticed that there were a few files that were showing up as suspicious. However, they looked legitimate, so I wasn’t sure. I did a search on the name Genieo and found a legitimate Israeli company that produces a software package to make ‘A Newspaper Styled Start Page For Mac’ (there is also a Windows version). It gathers information, sends out information—such as to Google—and installs software without the user’s approval. This has caused the software to become labeled as unwanted. Apparently, one aspect of the intrusion into a person’s computer has been to masquerade as an update to Adobe Flash Player. When I read that, it clicked in my mind that I had run more updaters recently than ever before and had wondered why.
I never consciously opted to install any of Genieo’s software, or any associated or similar software, and yet it managed to find it’s way into my system, likely by tricking me, like a trojan horse virus. The sorts of behaviour employed has caused this software to graduate from the label of unwanted to malware/adware and finally to virus. It is now being included in the lists used by virus checkers. The problem is that the company was sold for $34 million and some components of software now have different names.
I finally have my computer operating properly after many hours of frustration. However, I did it for free and I now have some new insights. Apple have on their website some extensive instructions on how to manually remove the Genieo software along with other similar software and I have now followed each step, just to be sure.
As I reflect back over this experience, I have a couple of conclusions and some questions. First, this seems to be a new reality for Macintosh computers. In over 25 years of using these computers, I have never had a virus. I was a heavy Bulletin Board System (BBS) user and operator, downloading freely anything I was interested in. Later, the Internet came along and I continued the activity of downloading. I have always loaded up my computer with downloads and often, more so in the past, run out of hard drive space. I have never spent any money for repairs and have owned many used computers I was given or bought second-hand.
I have run many utilities in the past and, in the ‘old days’ prior to the Mac OS becoming Unix-based, I was able to debug the system myself, discovering conflicts and incompatibilities. I rely a bit more on Internet searches for solving problems these days and some of my adventures have taken me down into the Unix foundations.
For years, the Mac OS has included protection software called Gatekeeper that runs completely hidden. (I seem to remember a commercial or shareware package that existed years ago called Gatekeeper. Perhaps this is the same or similar software.) Apple operates an App Store to allow developers to distribute software. The software is checked for issues. Some developers distribute software directly or by other means. GateKeeper allows a developer to obtain a unique Developer ID to sign their software with. If the software is distributed by someone who has tampered with the software and does not have the ID, GateKeeper will block it and give the computer user a pop-up notification. Many Apple applications in OS X are quarantine-aware and can catch files that are malicious and malware. The OS checks with a deny list of known files and software and then pops up a message to notify the user. All this is excellent, however as I mentioned, the user is usually notified and can choose to allow the software to install and run. In addition, being Unix-based, the OS runs maintenance scripts daily, monthly and yearly to help keep things in order.
Second, to have a software package go from legitimate to malware to virus seems to raise some difficult questions. Was it a case of human greed entering to cause the distribution of software to become invasive in nature? How does software slip from user install to sneaking in without permission or by masquerading like trojan horse viruses do? That software would be able to, once installed, actually accomplish tasks without the user having control seems very malicious. Then to eventually produce software that actually fools a user into thinking they are installing one software update and then having something totally different and unwanted installed, is unethical and even criminal.
This is only one example. How many others are out there? How does this sort of software moral decay impact other technologies? In other words, what other software, what other technologies can have a similar decay of having a legitimate beginning and then become rogue? This is yet another aspect of technological change in the Technojungle that we truly need to have some careful thought—Beware of malware!
Let’s think about it!
© 2015 by Bob Grahame
Please do not reproduce this article, or any part, in any manner, without my permission. Thank you!