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What is a snake-oil program?

Source Stay Safe Online article

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up vote 5 down vote accepted

It's a phrase the author of the article has coined to mean "[computer] programs of dubious worth."

He is using snake oil in the sense of a hoax medicine. As the article explains, that term derived from a traditional Chinese treatment from joint pains that was ridiculed by Western doctors with their own patent medicines to sell. In time, the "Snake Oil Salesman" became a stock character of Westerns: someone travelling from township to township, selling a worthless concoction as some sort of miracle cure, backed by nothing more than misdirection.

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As opposed to snake oil in the sense of a necessary remedy for a squeaky snake! – mgb Jul 11 '11 at 15:09
More specifically a program that claims you are infected with viruses that it can cure. There are no viruses on your computer (that it has detected anyway) but this AV promises to rid you of them anyway. It may or may not have any actual antivirus ability. – Chad Jul 11 '11 at 20:27

From TheFreeDictionary.com:

snake oil n. 1. A worthless preparation fraudulently peddled as a cure for many ills. 2. Speech or writing intended to deceive; humbug.

Etymonline.com dates the first usage from 1927.

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