May 2002 Reader Challenge - 12 Jun 2002

Do You Know Why the Screen Saver Wasn't Working?

Congratulations to Unis Ayub of Moorpark, California, United States, who wins first prize, a copy of my book, "Admin911: Windows 2000 Registry." Second prize, a copy of "Admin911: Windows 2000 Group Policy," by Roger Jennings, goes to John Elliott of Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Thanks to all of you for sending so many great answers (not just correct, but original and sometimes funny). Unfortunately, many wonderful answers arrived without addresses and telephone numbers, eliminating those people from the contest. Please read the rules. We can't send you a prize if we don't know where to send it. You must include your full name, street mailing addresss, town, state or province, and phone number.

The Problem:

A North Carolina reader named Patricia, who works at the Help desk of a large company, sent me an amusing note that detailed a challenge she faced. I sent her the answer, and now I'm presenting the challenge to you.

A company's human resources (HR) director and controller called a meeting of the accounting department employees and announced, "You're working with sensitive information such as payroll data, and we don’t want the information displayed for the world to see when you leave your workstation. As of this moment, you must use password-protected screen savers, and you must set your screen saver to appear after three minutes of idle time."

At the meeting, Patricia demonstrated the steps required to set up a password-protected screen saver. She showed the configuration screen and the "Computer Is Locked" dialog box that would appear when users returned to their workstations and moved the mouse to turn off the screen saver. Armed with handouts from Patricia, the employees returned to their workstations to configure their systems.

The controller spent the next few days checking around the accounting department. When he saw a workstation with no user and no screen saver, he waited for the user to return and then he complained. When he saw an unmanned workstation displaying a screen saver, he moved the mouse to see what would happen. Almost half the time, the screen saver disappeared to reveal accounting data instead of the expected "Computer Is Locked" dialog box. He called for Patricia, who checked the Display Properties dialog box. Patricia could see that the configuration was correct—the screen saver was password-protected. "What's going on?" she asked me.

Tell Patricia what's going on; there's only one possible cause for her problem.

The Solution

The accounting department employees understood the need to hide accounting data, and they took the security measure seriously. Whenever an employee left her workstation, she started the screen saver.

However, password protection for screen savers only works when the screen saver starts automatically (that is, when the specified amount of idle time has expired). When a user launches a screen saver manually, the computer isn't locked even though a password is linked to the screen saver.

To resolve the problem, Patricia had to teach users how to lock the computer (press Ctrl+Alt+Del, and then choose Lock Computer). The screen of a locked computer displays only the Computer Locked dialog box, and to unlock the computer you must press Ctrl+Alt+Del and type in the password for the current user. At Patricia's company, the password-protected screen saver became a secondary security measure, needed only when a user forgot to lock the computer.

Patricia learned that users were employing three methods for launching the screen saver manually, and I'll pass those methods along to you so you can understand the problem if you run into it:

1. Clicking the Preview button on the Screen Saver tab of the Display Properties dialog.

2. Double-clicking the screen-saver file, which is in the %SystemRoot%\System32 folder. Screen-saver filenames start with ss and have an .scr extension (e.g., ssmyst.scr for the Mystify screen saver). Many users had created desktop shortcuts to the screen-saver file.

3. Launching the screen saver from the Microsoft Office Toolbar (which is placed in the Startup folder of the Programs menu when you install Microsoft Office).

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