It is doubtful that there is anyone reading this who does not remember Steven Spielberg’s iconic cinema moment “E.T., phone home.” That was three decades ago, and today it is “PC, phone home.” It is now commonplace for almost every software program on your computer to “call home” on a regular basis to the company that made it. In the background, where you do not notice the activity, programs check in with their mother ship to see if updates or a new version of the program are available. Some of these “phone home” programs report your usage of the program, and some share details of your other computing activities.
Recently, I was called to troubleshoot a problem on a lady’s computer. She had dozens and dozens of programs installed, making it utterly impossible to isolate which of them was causing her internet connectivity issues. After realizing what I was up against, I recommended she restore her system and start over fresh and this time not install at least 50 programs she probably did not need anyway. Following my advice would have been the better and less expensive option. This was a non-starter for her because she said that it was impossible for her to reinstall all the pirated software she had collected over the years.
So, in order to find out which of her programs were clogging up her internet connection, I turned to another program, “Windows Firewall Control” (WFC) from MalwareBytes. This program is a favorite of mine because it adds almost nothing to Windows, but rather extends its functionality by providing an easy-to-use user interface for the firewall that is already installed on your Windows computer. The firewall included in Windows is great, but it can require a degree in engineering to use it effectively. WFC makes using your Windows firewall much simpler.
One feature of Windows Firewall Control is the ability to ask for a pop-up window every time any program accesses the internet so that you can know what communications are going on in the background. I rebooted the lady’s computer, and holy cow! After starting and for the first ten minutes, the computer was unusable; there was a new pop-up every few seconds as some 60 programs took over the internet connection to call home. This was without my even touching the computer or having started those programs. There were that many programs that had given themselves permission to start up and use the internet connection to report usage statistics and check for updates. I can only speculate as to what else those programs were doing.
It took many hours to sort through this client’s mess and find about 80 programs that had been commandeering her internet connection without her permission. The situation on your computer will probably be nothing so extreme, yet it can be very informative knowing what communications are taking place without your knowledge. Windows Firewall Control is a good way to learn about this.
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 044 415 101 8528 or email FAQ8@SMAguru.com.