Walt Mossberg

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Mossberg’s Mailbox

Blocking Spyware Before It’s Installed

There’s no other major item most of us own that is as confusing, unpredictable and unreliable as our personal computers. Everybody has questions about them, and we aim to help.

Here are a few questions about computers I’ve received recently from people like you, and my answers. I have edited and restated the questions a bit, for readability. This week my mailbox contained questions about antispyware software, Powerline adapters and the Mac mouse button.


I set my parents up with a new Dell PC, and included antispyware software that I run periodically to clean up the computer. I recently discovered they had more than 200 instances of spyware on the machine. This may be because my 81-year-old father surfs porn sites ALL the time (this isn’t a joke). Is there any way to keep his computer bulletproof and safe?

Assuming you can’t dissuade him from the porn sites, which are common sources of spyware and adware, your best option is to switch to a type of antispyware program that blocks the installation and operation of spyware and adware programs as it is happening, rather than waiting until they are installed to clear them out. The best program I have tested of this type is Spy Sweeper from Webroot, but there are others. These types of programs usually aren’t free, but their prices are modest and they would allow your dad to spend his golden years as he sees fit.

Last week, you recommended Powerline adapters that can route an Internet connection over the regular electrical wires in your house. I have two questions about these products. If a home has two different circuit-breaker boxes, can adapters plugged into outlets connected to the different boxes communicate? And, could a neighbor who shares an outside electrical line potentially spy on my Internet usage?

I am not an expert on electrical systems, and neither of these circumstances applied to my tests. So I asked Netgear, the manufacturer of the XE104 adapters I reviewed last week.

The company says that if the two adapters are plugged into outlets that are on totally independent electrical “loops,” they won’t be able to communicate, because the electrical current itself wouldn’t pass between the loops. However, Netgear claims it is “extremely rare” for a home built after 1950 to have two wholly independent loops, even if they have two different circuit-breaker boxes. The company says that, at least in newer homes, separate circuit boxes are often linked.

However, I would add that electrical layouts vary so much that there is no guarantee that any two electrical outlets will have a connection that will work with Powerline adapters. I believe it will work in the vast majority of cases, but not all. In my home, which is 36 years old, the adapters did work between rooms with different circuit-breaker boxes.

On the security issue, the company says it is theoretically possible, but very unlikely, for a neighbor on your same outside electrical line to spy on a network running over your interior electrical wires. To do so, Netgear says, the neighbor’s house and yours would have to lack a filter between them, and those are commonly present. Even then, a nosy neighbor would have to know that you have a Powerline network — and buy a compatible adapter — in order to access your network.

This is likelier, but still not very probable, in an apartment building, because circuits in such buildings are often shared. The company does include optional encryption software for such situations, so that even if a neighbor can snoop on you, he wouldn’t be able to decipher your network traffic.

I am thinking of buying an Apple MacBook, but I notice it only has one button below the touch pad, and no obvious scrolling control. Without buying and using a mouse, how can you right-click and scroll on a Mac laptop?

The Mac operating system and Apple software do in fact support right-clicking, displaying the same sort of pop-up menus that Windows does. However, on a Mac laptop with the single button, the traditional method for right-clicking has been a clumsy one: holding the Control key while clicking the button.

Now, the latest Mac laptops have a much easier and cleverer method for right-clicking: you just place two fingers on the track pad and click the button. It’s fast and easy, though still not as good as if Apple abandoned its odd mouse dogma and simply built dual buttons into its laptops.

Also, the new Mac laptops have a method for scrolling that I find superior to the methods common on Windows laptops: you just place two fingers on the touch pad and drag them up or down together. It quickly becomes second nature.

* * *

Because of the volume of email I receive, I can’t routinely answer individual questions by email, or consult on individual problems or purchasing decisions. I read all questions I receive and select three each week to answer in the column.

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at mossberg@wsj.com


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