Big dangers from more secure end users

Do-it-yourself security for bring your own device is trouble for IT

The better known complex online risks become, the more ordinary people will respond to them. The more complex their responses, the more difficult will be the job of the corporate IT people responsible for fixing new, effective security measures that almost work.

I have bad news for tech support people: a lot more end users are becoming the kind of power user who can troubleshoot most common support problems, handle their own minor mistakes and come to IT only with problems that are so complicated or difficult to diagnose that you should jump them straight up to your equivalent of athird-level help-desk response tech.

I've always been one of those people, mainly because I have the advantage of learning about IT by interviewing or working with the people doing things revolutionary enough to actually make news -- like having Niels Bohr as the TA for Physics 101.

The IT people I've worked with are usually happy to see me coming because I'm usually bouncing new information off them, not asking for help. If I have a laptop under my arm, they tend to hide.

As bring-your-own-device and self-help become more common in UserLand, that's going to become more common, especially stemming from issues having to do with security and privacy.

Private VPNs and other ways end users can secure insecure Internet connections -- the free HotspotShield, Anonymizer and the like, or commercial versions such as XPNPro, HMAPro and their like -- are good examples. They promise a decent response to two threats end users hear a lot about: privacy invasions from public wifi sniffers or Flash cookies, and the potential for their employers to listen in on their private use of a work laptop.

Partly for those reasons, partly to test how well they work, I installed, used and uninstalled several of them over the course of a couple of weeks. I installed according to directions, did compatibility analyses before installing, backed up my data ahead of time, and uninstalled using Revo Uninstaller Pro rather than either Windows 7's uninstaller or the apps' native versions.

Revo cleans out installer junk in the registry and files a lot better than native uninstallers, but it's not perfect.

Despite all that, I've spent four days diagnosing and cleaning out a gradual performance-rot during which Windows decided it didn't know how to launch its own management interface, didn't know when it did or didn't have a network connection, and refused to launch or admit the existence of services I could see were running by pulling up the Task Manager.

I eventually ran the problem down to installer cruft -- mainly network filters the VPNs left in my registry and drivers that were almost perfectly compatible with others already in the system.

(A Windows driver that's almost perfectly compatible is the best way to turn a nicely running laptop into Chernobyl, in case you're looking for a way to explain it to an end user. I got that comparison from the funniest, most bitter user-support person I ever worked with, and never forgot it.)

None of Microsoft's native troubleshooters can identify the problem; resetting winsock, running sfc /scannow didn't do it; system restore wouldn't work; Windows Update fried itself.

All the apps were easy to find, easy to install, and mostly free, at least to install.

And they were all low-level system components, not the much simpler, higher-level games, collaboration apps or UI tweakers end users tend to play with, and which are a lot easier to fix.

So brace yourself as you get farther into the era of bring-your-own-device and public awareness of how exposed a road warrior with a laptop is in a Starbucks.

As users take steps to protect themselves, they're going to take up more of your time and cause you more headaches than ever before. And they'll be doing it to respond to your warnings, so you may not even be able to blame them for trying.

Go ahead and do it anyway.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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