I need to make my parents' computer father-proof.
November 7, 2011 5:34 PM   Subscribe

How do I keep my father from wrecking his computer - again?

I bought my parents a computer last year, but tonight I am restoring it to factory settings for the third time due to bizarre computer appearance and behavior likely the result of malware. No matter what programs I install on the computer to protect against malware and virii (I have tried ZoneAlarm, Avast, AdAware, Microsoft Security Essentials, and Spybot Search and Destroy) it hasn't worked. I believe it is because my father refuses to practice good net hygiene and ignores or refuses to remember training and advice that I give him about avoiding malware. He opens spam messages, clicks on pop-ups that tell him he has a virus, and browses adult websites frequently (I know this because I have seen his browser history while the computer was still working). My mother refuses to use the computer for reasons that she won't explain, and I think that my father's uses are why. It has become very frustrating for me, because I bought my parents the computer so that they could become more familiar with technology and do things like look for jobs, but instead my mother seems alienated and my father doesn't care what happens.

I have tried to set up the computer (a PC laptop running Windows 7) so that it will update and protect without input from my parents (because my father won't do it), and I have some computer know-how, but I need ideas for new solutions. The preexisting advice on Google, such as making him use Gmail in Firefox, only installing necessary programs and it has not worked. I have no desire to pay for a solution, and installing Linux would probably prevent my father from using it (though this is not sounding like such a bad idea now). My father's attitude and stubbornness makes me want to tell him to look for help elsewhere the next time his computer becomes unusable.

Thank you in advance.
posted by koucha to Technology (27 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Put ubuntu on it. If their computer use doesn't extend beyond email, web browsing, music listening and writing the odd letter. Ubuntu looks after itself pretty well, and is now quite slick.
posted by the noob at 5:37 PM on November 7, 2011 [5 favorites]

Can't help you with an uncooperative father (used to have one of my own just like that: I feel your pain!), but for your mom: could you get her a computer just for her, NOT to be shared with your father?
posted by easily confused at 5:39 PM on November 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

My boyfriend's dad is similar...he just uses the computer to play chess, read email, and, apparently, click on every dang malware ad and spam link in sight. We ended up taking admin access away from his user account and limiting it to an admin account that he doesn't know the password to. If he needs to do something that requires admin rights he can call us or set up a logmein session--but so far he's never needed to.
posted by phoenixy at 5:41 PM on November 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Deepfreeze is your friend here. A single license is only 35 bucks a year, and lets you roll back to something functional every reboot. It. Is. Awesome.
posted by rockindata at 5:43 PM on November 7, 2011 [13 favorites]

My wife did the same thing. I got her a mac. I hate the things, myself, but she hasn't wrecked that.
posted by fimbulvetr at 5:43 PM on November 7, 2011 [7 favorites]

Seconding Ubuntu. It's free, and no one writes viruses or malware for linux. It's very unlikely that he'll screw it up. He will experience a learning curve with the differently laid-out OS, but honestly, it's not that different for a user who mainly uses it for a browser.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 5:43 PM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

PS: You'll make your and his life easier if you make sure the hardware you're putting it on is on the lists of "compatible out-of-the-box" for Ubuntu.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 5:45 PM on November 7, 2011

Deepfreeze would work, but more generally, if he doesn't have an admin-level account he shouldn't be able to install things. You could create an account for him and a separate one for your mom (under User Management or something like that). She then wouldn't have to see any of his stuff.
posted by idb at 5:52 PM on November 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

You could do what I did to my dad the 4th time this happened...I sent him an invoice. (Although I do have a business license and a company, but...meh.)
posted by TomMelee at 6:22 PM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Remove admin rights to his account first. However, even if he doesn't have admin rights, he can hose his account with account-level malware that will start whenever he logs in. This does make restores much easier though -- just flush his user account and create a new one.

If you want to really lock him down and goof-proof his profile, set up a profile that resets itself to default after every logout. Details here. Downsides are that all settings and documents on the desktop will go away, so you may have to train him to save somewhere else.

You may also want to talk to your mom about the computer. Her reluctance to use it might be due to your dad's internet porn problem, and not the malware.
posted by benzenedream at 6:23 PM on November 7, 2011

installing Linux would probably prevent my father from using it (though this is not sounding like such a bad idea now). My father's attitude and stubbornness makes me want to tell him to look for help elsewhere the next time his computer becomes unusable.

That's an entirely reasonable position for you to take. At the moment, he has no incentive at all to avoid screwing up his computer because he knows you'll fix it for free. So do these things:

1. Create a new user account called Sysadmin and password-protect it.

2. Log in as Sysadmin, then open a CMD window and do

net user Administrator *

and type your Sysadmin password when prompted - this stops Safe Mode from offering a trivial bypass to your Sysadmin account.

3. Still in Sysadmin, use the Users and Groups control panel item to change your father's existing user account from Computer Administrator to Limited (or whatever Windows 7 calls the most restricted kind of account - might be User? Look this up).

4. Tell him that next time he breaks his computer, you will be installing a different OS on it. Don't use the word "Linux" because that will frighten him, but do follow through. I usually recommend Debian but in your particular case you might be better off with Mint, because it looks fairly Windows-like to the untrained eye so it won't frighten him much, and it's built on Ubuntu which is currently the easiest distro to find support for.

5. When you do install Linux, make sysadmin the first user account you create (with most distros this will make it end up with some degree of administrative access) and then use that to create a Desktop User account for your father.

I have tried ZoneAlarm, Avast, AdAware, Microsoft Security Essentials, and Spybot Search and Destroy

My experience with these says

ZoneAlarm: too confusing for untrained users, who have no reasonable basis for choosing how to answer its frequent questions and end up blocking things they should allow and/or allowing things they should block.

Avast: too noisy. Always popping things up, or speaking to you or some bloody thing. Also slows the computer down quite noticeably, and needing to run a periodic re-licensing procedure by hand is irritating.

AdAware: Used to be good; currently a severe resource hog.

Microsoft Security Essentials: seen it cause inexplicable weirdness too often to trust it.

Spybot Search and Destroy: reasonably effective as a post-infection cleanup tool; the inbuilt browser helper works reasonably well; but the "Tea Timer" registry protection stuff is every bit as confusing as ZoneAlarm for exactly the same reasons.

My current personal favorite in freebie Windows anti-malware is Panda Cloud Antivirus - it's more effective than most of its competitors and is also the least in-your-face AV I've ever used; it causes very close to no performance loss.

If you're determined to pay money for anti-malware, NOD32 is a solid choice.
posted by flabdablet at 6:25 PM on November 7, 2011 [7 favorites]

You can theme Ubuntu to look exactly like Windows. Or at least, you could when I was using it at work a few versions ago. I had my boss, colleagues, even an IT person once use my computer and not suspect that it was actually Linux. I can't remember the exact theme set I used, but it affected everything: window style, navigation interfaces, menu placement, fonts, etc. The only problem he would have is with installing new software, because he wouldn't knkow to look in the repositories, instead of just clicking a .exe file. But that's exactly what you want, right?
posted by lollusc at 6:26 PM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

And seriously, he already said no linux, and Ubuntu or Kubuntu or Edubuntu or Mint are all noob friendly, but they're not...like...without their learning curve. And "Nobody writes viruses for linux" is as innacurate as saying "iOS is the most secure OS on the market."

Group policies are your friend here, if that's what you want to do. Limited account settings will probably just make him irritated. Deep Freeze or something of the ilk, or drop him to XP and install SteadyState, which is free.

Or, you could install VM-ware viewer OR use XP mode and make him a VM, and then run that VM in a limited access user account, but within the VM he could be admin. Snapshot the VM in "perfect order" and whenever he nukes it just restore the VM, takes about 2 minutes.

Or image the drive in perfect order and just flash the drive instead of reinstalling. Dad says "but I want to keep this blah blah blah" you say "Sorry dad, nuke or nothing."
posted by TomMelee at 6:28 PM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Make sure he does not have administrator status. He should be a regular joe user. Keep admin rights for yourself.

Install adblock (or equivalent) on all browsers. He won't click on ads if they don't show up.
posted by chairface at 6:35 PM on November 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

"Nobody writes viruses for linux" is as innacurate as saying "iOS is the most secure OS on the market."

Even so, it is still perfectly true to say that if you were to compare a random selection of Linux-based internet-connected desktop boxes with no specific anti-malware software installed to a same-sized random selection of Windows-based desktop boxes with or without anti-malware, there would be more malware running in the Windows boxes.
posted by flabdablet at 6:40 PM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Absolutely seconding the recommendation to adblock all web browsers.
posted by flabdablet at 6:44 PM on November 7, 2011

Buy your mom an iPad and password it to keep your dad off of it.
posted by anastasiav at 7:04 PM on November 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

I bought my parents the computer so that they could become more familiar with technology and do things like look for jobs, but instead my mother seems alienated and my father doesn't care what happens.

I've been thinking about this.

What are the chances that your parents see the computer not as a useful tool, but as a nuisance that they're too embarrassed to tell you they never really wanted?

Your Dad might be buggering it up semi-deliberately to create bonding opportunities. He might believe you actually like fixing it for him.

I'm an IT technician who works in a school, and I know several teachers who react in pretty much this exact same way to having unwanted technology imposed on them.
posted by flabdablet at 7:13 PM on November 7, 2011 [5 favorites]

I'd make him a limited user on Windows or install Jolicloud or another Linux distro that's easier to use, then get your mom a different computer with the same sort of setup. I wouldn't fix his wagon again for him, though.
posted by dragonplayer at 7:14 PM on November 7, 2011

I'd set up Adblock and restrict his access as much as possible to still allow browsing and email.

AND, could you maybe set yourself up to access his network and computer remotely? Or at least make it LOOK like you can?

Because telling him, "Don't click on virus warnings, Dad!" is one thing, but having you, his kid say,"This is happening so often that if I have to come back again, I'm setting myself up so I can monitor your computer remotely and check in whenever to see exactly what you're doing," especially if he at least thinks you could then also see exactly what porn he's viewing, might be a bigger deterrent to him mucking about any more.

And if you can do it, I second getting Mom an iPad! Showing her just a few things she can do, and password protecting it for her is a GREAT idea. Once she feels comfortable reading ebooks, playing games (My Mom likes word games and that collecting frogs one) and getting gmail, you can show her more.

I find this gradual approach works best for older folks who are a bit intimidated by technology (like my FIL, who got overwhelmed and cranky when my husband tried to show him everything his iPad was capable of, but once I sat him down and asked what he actually wanted to do with it fell in love with iBooks and Kindle. That's important, btw--just because you think they SHOULD be using the computer to look for jobs doesn't mean they will, at least not right away. But if you make them comfortable with this new tool you have given them, they will be more open to trying new things later on down the line. My FIL is now burning CDs, so it can happen!)
posted by misha at 8:21 PM on November 7, 2011

Not all ideas work out. Some folks are dingbats, but their kids turn out OK.

Cut your losses. Dad can use a computer at the library and they won't let him browse porn.

Not everyone REALLY needs to be on the internet.
posted by FauxScot at 11:37 PM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Get them a mac, or an iPad.
posted by FrereKhan at 2:06 AM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Situations like this are a major use case for Chromebooks. The deal is that it's fast like a notebook and secure like an iPad. However, what I'd suggest is that you tell your dad you'll fix his windows notebook one more time and give him a locked down account. If he calls you again then you won't do anything else to help except help him buy a Chromebook. Then you can give the notebook to your mom.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:27 AM on November 8, 2011

If you go the route of auto-rollback, he can keep his bookmarks (if he uses Firefox/Chrome/Opera) if you set up their Sync. Each of those browsers has it, so he wouldn't lose everything on rollback.

Definitely use Adblock. Remove access to IE if you can.
posted by bookdragoness at 6:54 AM on November 8, 2011

I'm smiling as I read through this thread. I recently confiscated my fathers (essentially dead) PC which is now in my office staring forlornly at me. I might attempt to clean it up yet again but I suspect a total reinstall of XPpro is in order. He just isn't getting it that his "curiosity" killed his PC. (and don't get me going on his email. The amount of spam is absolutely stunning...)

My question is this: Are iPads bulletproof enough in this scenario?

Could my father kill an iPad?
posted by jamesalbert at 7:52 AM on November 8, 2011

The program deepfreeze and make sure he is not an admin of the machine.

Deepfreeze puts the computer back into the way you set it after a reboot. Make sure you have the machine turn on unfrozen in the middle of the night to download and install programs.

IF you dont want the hassle of deep freeze , make sure your parents accounts are not admin members.
posted by majortom1981 at 9:23 AM on November 8, 2011

There are two approaches you could take here, that involve your father still having a computer to use.

#1: Install Linux, or buy them a Mac, so that the amount of damage is kept to a minimum. However, they will have a learning curve, and you will be the teacher...and you're correct, no amount of training is going to break the bad habits going on here, because you're the teacher and he's your father. Folks is folks.

#2: Install Linux, or buy them a Mac, then install Windows 7 using Parallels or VMWare. Make sure you take a snapshot of your "virgin" installation. Make sure they can't do anything except run the virtual environment. Then, when it gets totally screwed up again -- and it will! -- you can stop by, restore the "virgin" snapshot in a few seconds, and go on your merry way.

Also: don't fight your mother. If she doesn't want to use one, she doesn't want to use one. She's your mother. Respect that.
posted by davejay at 4:23 PM on November 8, 2011

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