Wednesday, April 01, 2009


Don't exaggerate. Not joking. Made huge deal of Conficker,
very bad. Step away from the NY Times, face music.

If only Rorschach could have broken John Markoff's arm. Then the Judith Miller of national computer security stories might be made uncomfortable the next time he cranked up for a story of world-spanning disaster and conspiracy. Like Judith Miller had, Markoff has a special knack for turning a collection of lukewarm facts and energizing rumors from a handful of self-serving sources into a story line of potentially world-shaking catastrophe.

(See here and here for all the standard cliches.)

"Will [Conficker] prove to be the world’s biggest April Fool’s joke or is it the information age equivalent of Herman Kahn’s legendary 1962 treatise about nuclear war, Thinking About the Unthinkable?" wondered Markoff, having cake and eating it, too, on March 19th.

However, unlike Judith Miller, Markoff will never be run off the Times reservation. Computer security disasters-in-waiting don't get the same juice as stories about alleged WMD menaces. They're not hot enough to aid in getting the country into a good war lather, even when they make Sunday editions or the front page. That's a good thing, right?

And such stories have features too nebulous -- but also too technical -- for newspaper public editors to unravel. Stories like Conficker (or the world-spanning Ghostnet with its dressed-in-black ready-for-their-agents-to-call sources) can always be described as both interesting and true. Except those parts which are true are not interesting. While those which are interesting are not true. And ninety percent of readers can't tell which is which and couldn't care less.

DD mostly retired from the computer security beat years ago. Over ten years of examination it had boiled down to a great mean of threadbare whoopie cushion news pieces. At least half the rationale for them was titillation and bringing in eyeballs among the tech-savvy crowd.

"[We've] become aware of dramatic new evidence that reporting on [the Conficker] doomsday worm is good for page views," writes Kevin Poulsen at Wired here. Kevin would know. He fired me for writing a column on computer viruses, guilty of the sin of not getting enough hits back when he was editor of SecurityFocus, a website run by the Symantec computer security firm.

So keep this in mind when you're reading the 'Ha-ha' ain't-it-funny after-action stories: They're fundamentally designed to have their cake and eat it, too. Just in case. Gotta keep those eyeballs glued, hits and 'most e-mailed' tickers up.

This is just the American way. More fool you if you can't abide it. If you can't get on the wagon, suffer.

On a bit of a different tack, what's history for if you can't mine it for the nose gold of repetition?

To that end, DD departs from Conficker today for some yesterdays, when the declarations and sentiments were similar, if not the scale of media penetration.

And it was captured on the old homepage of my Crypt Newsletter, now preserved in the Wayback machine here.

What follows is a collection of famous obscure quotes, all generated when I edited the Crypt Newsletter, undimmed by the passage of time. Many of them appeared in newspapers, often in foreign lands or buried in sections no one read on the great march to the glorious future.

"Imagine a world in which everything is done with the diligence exhibited by those who are developing network architectures and software ... It would be a world where teenage boys seated at computers can contaminate everything simply by bringing to bear the intellectual power necessary to read a comic book.

"You'd have to grow your own food. Going outside the house would be impossible because you'd be continuously hit by paintballs and rolls of sodden toilet paper. Your car would have its wiring disappear, eaten by cybernetic rats. Your grass would die because someone would constantly be spraying dog piss on it and the police would decline to intervene. You wouldn't be able to hold a phone conversation because strangers would always be shouting 'undeliverable mail,' 'hi,' 'your bill,' 'your account,' 'see attached document,' 'thanks,' 'look at this,' 'here is the information you requested,' 'you have sent a virus,' and so on."

"We are stuck with the regime that we have in which software has to be serially patched. We can't go back now and fix it."

From the Guardian in 2003 --here.

John Markoff disaster robot working as tech journalist explained

Big Gov Network Pretty OK! Modest admin shuns limelight -- [that] 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 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.

From el Reg, in 2002 -- here.

A very special rib-tickler, in light of current events

"We know with specificity of several nations that are working on developing an information warfare capability," said [CIA director George Tenet], declining to specify them.

"It is clear that nations . . . developing these programs recognize the value of attacking a country's computer systems both on the battlefield and in the civilian arena," said the CIA leader.

Quoting from a newspaper article in China's People's Liberation Daily, Tenet said: "An adversary wishing to destroy the United States only has to mess up the computer systems of its banks by high-tech means ... "If we overlook [information warfare] and simply rely on the building of a costly army ... it is just as good [or not so good] as building a contemporary Maginot Line . . . "

From sometime in 2000 -- here.


Anonymous coffee maker said...

I've heard from multiple sources that the Conficker worm wouldn't be a threat to Mac users, thank goodness

12:44 AM  

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