Bringing a zombie computer back to life MOST of us have done it at one time or another. You try to access a website you haven’t visited in ages and can’t remember the password that admits you to its inner sanctum. Websites are usually pretty forgiving about such things, and will e-mail you a temporary password, which is fine if you still have the same e-mail address.
But what if you’ve lost (or never had) that ultimate of passwords—the “Administrator” password for your computer’s own operating system? That could easily have happened if, say, your predecessor cleaned out the office desk and deleted his personal files from computer before disappearing without trace. Now you can’t update the software, download bug fixes, renew the anti-virus subscription or add programs and utilities you need for doing your job.
You’ve tried all the obvious tricks—leaving the space for the Administrator password blank, inserting the word “admin” or dozens of popular passwords drawn from lists available on the web. Stumped, the choice comes down to: throw the computer away, or try painstakingly to bring it back to life.
If the decision is to resuscitate, the simplest but most tedious course is to set aside a day or so to re-install the operating system from scratch. That means collecting all the latest versions of the software drivers used for running the computer’s hardware components. If you can get into a “user account” on the system, this limited authority should at least let you view the hardware’s details.
Next, you need to dig out the original installation discs for the operating system, or buy a full version of it (an upgrade won’t do) if that’s disappeared as well. Then grit your teeth while you reformat the hard-drive and re-install the operating system and all the applications programs.
Actually, that’s not such a bad thing to do once in a while, if you can afford the time. Hard drives get cluttered with all sorts of rubbish, and no amount of “defragging” will give them the verve they had when new. Can things go wrong? Sure. Just console yourself that the alternative was to toss the machine anyway.
For the more adventurous, there’s always lobotomy. There are lots of software tools and services available on the internet which, for a fee, will crack just about any password and reveal its decrypted secrets. They may be legal, but such practices walk a wobbly line ethically. If it’s a company machine, better to be on the safe side and use a recovery technique that simply over-writes an existing password and replaces it with a blank. That is the difference between hacking and cracking. At least, the computer’s new user can then get the system running properly again and give it a new Administrator password.
Despite their reputation for insecurity, the worst offenders when it comes to locking legitimate users out of their own computers are the later versions of Windows, especially NT, 2000 and XP Despite their reputation for insecurity, the worst offenders when it comes to locking legitimate users out of their own computers are the later versions of Windows, especially NT, 2000 and XP. Fortunately, their file system, called NTFS, can be read by any Linux distribution that includes the appropriate drivers.
So, in principle, all you have to do is get a bootable version of a Linux distribution (a “live CD” of, say, Knoppix) that contains two particular files called “captive ntfs” and “chntpw”. After booting the computer with the Linux CD, the first of these packages scans the hard drive for the Windows files it needs to access the locked-down operating system. Then the second package goes to work, tracking down the Administrator password.
That’s the theory. In practice, things can get messy, even for regular Linux users. Fortunately, some gifted people have gone out of their way to make life easier for the rest of us Windrones.
The most famous is Petter Nordahl-Hagen, who has put together a CD with all the Linux tools needed to do the job. The latest version of this box of tricks can be downloaded from his website for free. Another ethical password-changer comes from a threesome whose hacker names are Headhunter, Rez Kiyn and Harakiri. Their Trinity Rescue Kit is even more user friendly. The latest version, TRK 3.2, can be downloaded from Trinity’s website also for free. Both sets of utilities will have a crippled computer up and running, with a new Administrator password, in minutes.
One of the cheering things about the Linux community in particular, and the open-source software movement in general, is the way so many talented people give their time and know-how to help others in a fix—and do so cheerfully for free. If either of the password tools above bring a zombie computer back to life for you, do send a donation to the developer. It would cost at least $50 to get a password removed commercially. And think about the $500 you’ve saved through not having to buy a replacement machine.