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[] Cyberterror De-Hype, update,

George Smith mal wieder sehr polemisch, aber mit schönem Bezug auf die
letzten Schreckensmeldungen des Sommers.

Cheap Thrills on the Cyberterror Beat 

Are computer viruses really on the verge of becoming instruments of
bloodshed, or is the press just addicted to disaster journalism? 

By George Smith Sep 03, 2002 

Did you hear of the computer virus that could "attack the Pentagon's
ability to mobilize or communicate with its forces" and cripple all
government services in a city? I read about it in the Center for Defense
Information's July Defense Monitor newsletter. It would be part of an
"electronic Waterloo," readers were informed. 

These days "electronic Pearl Harbor" and "digital Armageddon" are fit
only for the nitwit's book of cliches, but "e-Waterloo" is grossly
underused. As such, I recommend gnomic cyber-security gurus massage it
into worldwide circulation posthaste. 

While on the subject, I would also like to take a moment to field
suggestions in the naming game -- terms somewhat less belligerently
idiotic but still intriguing to suckers and cub reporters. I favor
adoption of "Cyber-Remember the Maine" or "e-Gulf of Tonkin" -- two that
can do double duty as rationalizations for attacking someone else. But
feel free to coin your own. 'Big Gov Network Pretty OK!' isn't a story
an editor can dig.  

Also arriving via The Daily Electronic Crapper was news that organized
crime was in the business of disseminating computer viruses. Why the
underbosses might be involved in virus surplus was not explained by
Reuters, but the news did mix nicely with word from a colleague a week
earlier that an "expert" at a recent CERT-hosted conference was
chattering excitedly about the Mafia carrying out hits over the

It's probably this type of colorful apocrypha that moved Sophos' Graham
Cluley to complain to The Register last week. Those who prattle on about
such things, indicated the anti-virus technologist, were messing up the
natural order, "doing a disservice to security by misstating [the]
importance" of viruses. 

For every Graham Cluley, though, there is a brigade of journalists and
pundits who deliver weekly about the coming or the lack of coming (Where
is it? What's taking it so long? If not now, when?) of a computer virus
or cyberterror end. Further, candor of this nature from inside the
industry would not be tolerated long in the good ol' USA. For
approaching the media with frankness and not getting with the terror
program, Cluley might be quickly furloughed to Camp X-Ray, or at least
expelled from the industry. 

'Klez Bites Dog'

However, that's only part of the operating dynamic which dictates whose
reality is going to get the big push. No one wants to write a story
about the fellow who e-mailed me recently to say: "I can get people to
spill their drinks by telling them that... we have lost no data to
viruses since 1991 ... The money we save on non-working,
never-up-to-date copies of [software] goes to a couple of reasonable
mail scanners, a firewall which we keep in good order, and a couple of
people who know what the hell they're doing." 

"Big Gov Network Pretty OK! Modest admin shuns limelight" isn't a story
an editor can dig. However, anyone even slightly capable of
self-examination will admit to feeling a pleasant surge of anticipation
at merely the possibility of: "Net Destroyed by UBL Worm! Nation
paralyzed, communications down to runners." 

The galvanizing aspect of pleasure should not be minimized. 

It's fun to get caught up in the chase of disaster. Passing on official
fictions seasoned with anecdotal accounts of pandemic human screw-up
salted with the infrequent loquacious virus-writer or hacker eager to
play the part of pitiful but sinister freak (the porn-obsessed
virus-writer, hackers thought to have Asperger's Syndrome) always lands
above the fold, is guaranteed high transfer in mailing lists, and spawns
same-day copycat journalism. Tales which lack these ingredients don't.  

And nothing could have been more fun in this regard this summer -- if
you need more proof -- than the work of the Washington Post. On the
front page -- big, smokin' stories about al Qaeda drawing up plans for
cyberterror and a computer security firm patriotically penetrating an
Army network and squealing about it to the newspaper. 

The latter was especially delightful because the Post allowed the
reporter to focus on the thrilling parts -- the exposing of the Army's
underwear through uninvited penetration -- without discussing how it
differed from, say, teenagers arrested for similar actions or, possibly,
the Princeton administrators loudly denounced for getting into Yale's
admissions accounts. 

When news trickled in that the source of the Post's expose was being
investigated by the FBI and an Army criminal division, it lacked the
same top A-section sass and was delivered buried inside. There it
escaped boring discussions of what it might mean for a computer security
firm's future if it had to regularly explain to clients why it was
visited by the FBI. 

George Smith is Editor-at-Large for VMYTHS and founder of the Crypt
Newsletter. He has written extensively on viruses, the genesis of
techno-legends and the impact of both on society. His work has appeared
in publications as diverse as the Wall Street Journal, the Village Voice
and the National Academy of Science's Issues in Science & Technology,
among others.

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