Jan 13 2000

The Y2K Virus Media Fiasco

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“Another media fiasco.” What else can you say about the worldwide hysteria surrounding Y2K viruses? I haven’t watched something take a dive like this since the last Don King fight.

Let’s summarize why the world succumbed to Y2K virus hysteria in 1999:

  1. All other things being equal, fearmongers scream much louder than skeptics.
  2. The media has a fetish for juicy computer virus stories.
  3. The media explodes in a big virus orgasm every 3-4 years.

The media explodes in a big virus orgasm every 3-4 years. The last one occurred in 1996. Add three or four years… um, carry the one… eureka!

Let’s see, the last big orgasm occurred in 1996. Add three or four years… um, carry the one… eureka! Now let’s summarize how the Y2K virus hysteria came about:

  1. The antivirus industry grew jealous of all the Y2K hysteria.
  2. Fearmongers started to co-opt the Y2K hysteria.
  3. Michael Vatis turned the FBI into a virus hype machine.
  4. Reporters took fearmongers at face value like they always do.
  5. Antivirus firms kicked Y2K virus hype into high gear on 1 Nov 99.
  6. Y2K experts read (or perhaps just heard?) stories about all the predicted Y2K viruses.
  7. Y2K experts started telling reporters “we did our job, we’re OK for Y2K, the only threat left is the virus armageddon, God save us all.”
  8. Reporters embraced Y2K experts as Y2K virus experts. They didn’t realize those Y2K experts suffered from False Authority Syndrome.
  9. Pseudo-experts around the globe ordered (and ordered and ordered and ordered and ordered!) temporary network shutdowns to avoid a deluge of Y2K viruses.

In the end, though, Y2K viruses failed to materialize. It mirrored another miserable failure known as the 1997 Valentine’s Day Massacre.

Whew! Enough summaries. Now I can get long-winded.

FBI NIPC director Michael Vatis arguably made the single biggest impact on Y2K virus media hysteria. How could reporters resist the lure of a G-man? His agency burst onto the scene with a Melissa manhunt involving every single FBI field office in the country. NIPC publicized a manhunt for ExploreZip‘s author and they even urged citizens to report ExploreZip infections to the nearest FBI office.

Vatis jumped on the bandwagon when antivirus vendors first started to talk about a Y2K armageddon. “The long arm of the cyber-law” accused India, Israel, Ireland, and other countries (not all beginning with the letter “I”) of adding trap doors, viruses, and other malicious code to U.S. corporate software — all while getting paid to fix Y2K bugs. ” ‘We have some indications that this is happening’ in a possible foreshadowing of economic and security headaches stemming from Y2K fixes, Michael Vatis of the Federal Bureau of Investigation told Reuters.”

These official FBI warnings laid a foundation of plausibility for Y2K virus hysteria. In reality, Vatis based his cries of alarm on a speculative report written by CIA analyst Terrill Maynard (on loan to NIPC). How could reporters resist the lure of a politically explosive CIA document? “This is our effort to [give] the public information that hopefully can be useful to people,” Vatis bragged to Reuters.

The media certainly found it useful. So did the computer security industry at large.

I urge— no, strike that. I order every CIO to “Monday-morning quarterback” the designated computer security person. Follow the checklist below.

Vatis appeared before a U.S. Senate panel at one point to caution how “in some instances, it may not be immediately apparent whether a service outage is the result of the ‘millennium bug’ or a computer intrusion.” This, too, helped lay a foundation of plausibility for Y2K virus hysteria.

A worldwide media fetish for virus stories provided the vehicle for government fearmongering. This insatiable fetish can cloud the minds of even the best reporters. Forbes senior editor Adam Penenberg, for example, exposed the Stephen Glass scandal, yet he got swept up in the “se7en” scandal — and he issued a public apology for it. Penenberg explained why his research methods failed him:

I called literally 10 law enforcement officials who said they studied under [se7ev] in one of his security courses. On the record, they would all vouch for se7en’s hacking skills. Off the record, they all said they knew what he was doing… I think the most important lesson I learned is that law enforcement doesn’t have a clue what really goes on in hacking circles; they are not good sources for this.

Read it again: “law enforcement doesn’t have a clue what really goes on in hacking circles.” So says an embarrassed senior editor at Forbes magazine. Vatis would later admit the FBI lacked real evidence to support his own fearmongering. (Why he admitted it remains unclear.)

I label Vatis the most influential fearmonger — yet he certainly didn’t spread government-sanctioned fear all by his lonesome. Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre also pitched in. White House National Security Council staff director Mark Montgomery donated to the Great Cause, as did Clinton Y2K czar John Koskinen and U.S. Senator Robert Bennett.

How could reporters resist the lure of so many powerful figureheads?

Hysteria quickly expanded around the globe. Y2K figureheads in every country offered their own cries of alarm. These officials many times proclaimed “we did our job, we’re OK for Y2K, the only threat left is the virus armageddon, God save us all.”

The press exploded with Halloween stories as the first “true” Internet armageddon loomed. Reporters told of 200,000 Y2K viruses and millions of Y2K hackers — all waiting for the midnight attack signal. Vatis armed FBI agents with packet sniffers & antivirus software in a last-ditch effort to save the world from Ultimate Evil.

If the best you can say about a virus expert is that he’s a U.S. Senator… well, he probably isn’t a very good virus expert.

In the end, though, nothing happened. Nothing! Some fearmongers avoided reporters on New Year’s Day; others brazenly extended their predictions. ISS spokesmodel Michele Norwood, for example, cautioned “Monday is the day” when workers everywhere would turn computers back on…

Vatis amazed his detractors when he triumphantly backpedaled almost a week after the fact. An Associated Press newswire unknowingly exposed the feminine side of FBI’s ballsy catastrophist:

For all the fear of New Year’s terrorism, the FBI opened no more investigations of computer crime and physical threats or violence than during a normal seven-day period. The FBI opened six investigations of computer crimes and 12 investigations into physical threats or violence nationwide from Dec. 29 through Jan. 5, Mike Vatis, head of the FBI’s National Infrastructure Protection Center, said Thursday.

‘The level was not beyond the norm you would usually see in that number of days,’ Vatis said. ‘On neither side — cybercrime or physical threats — did we think the weekend activity was particularly unusual.’ Vatis said some new computer viruses were found but there were no significant millennium-related attacks during the seven days his office operated a command post inside the FBI’s Strategic Information and Operations Center in Washington. He also said there was no increase in attacks from overseas.

“No increase in attacks from overseas,” Vatis proclaimed. Say what? No increase in attacks from India, Israel, Ireland, nor any other country beginning with the letter “I”? No evidence of back doors & Trojan horses inserted under the guise of Y2K repairs? No Biblical flood of über-viruses released all at once on New Year’s Eve? No coordinated campaign of cyber-terror targeted at millions of innocent computers?

So much for NIPC’s “effort to [give] the public information that hopefully can be useful to people.”

Meanwhile, Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre expressed disbelief at the absence of a Y2K armageddon during a press conference:

[Hamre:] We experienced surprisingly little cyber activity during this period. That was a surprise to me. I had thought we would have encountered more than we did. There were some efforts by hackers in cyberspace to break into some of our systems, less than we normally experience on a weekend. Evidently, the lonely hearts out there in cyberland had something else to do and weren’t just banging on us all night! We did disconnect a number of potential penetration efforts before they could do any further damage to us; we simply unplugged them. So we didn’t have the problems that we had anticipated we may have in cyberspace…

[Reporter:] When you say there were fewer incidents than in a normal weekend, can you help us with the numbers? On a normal weekend you have a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand?

[Hamre:] You know, I’ll be happy to answer the question, but I honestly don’t have the data. I know we had four instances where we pulled the plug on some hackers that were trying to break in. You know, this is a problem that’s been growing. Almost every month it’s progressively, you know, more serious than it was the month before…

A Reuters newswire about Hamre’s press conference proclaimed “U.S. intelligence may have overstated Y2K threat.” The #2 man at DoD unexpectedly resigned one week later. (Anecdote: Hamre disciple Arthur Money did not get the nod to replace him.)

“Should we fire the fearmongers, Rob?” Hey, I won’t shed tears at their passing … but firing them won’t help right now. Face it: this industry sells itself almost entirely on fear because it works. Fearmongers grow like weeds in a computer security compost heap. Reporters and computer users must first learn skepticism. Then we can sever some heads!

I urge— no, strike that. I order every CIO to “Monday-morning quarterback” the designated computer security person:

  1. Demand a report on every action (or inaction) taken to avoid the predicted deluge of Y2K viruses.
  2. Justify every security decision whether or not it impacted the bottom line.
  3. Demand to see proof if an employee alluded to “evidence” of a Y2K virus threat.
  4. Refuse to accept press releases, news stories, or anecdotes as “evidence.”
  5. Analyze where/how/why things went wrong. Did a paranoid VP override the authority of a sane manager?
  6. Don’t accept childish excuses for irrational decisions.

Firing the fearmongers won’t help; they grow like weeds. Reporters and computer users must learn skepticism first. Then we can sever some heads!

Only the strongest ego will admit “I got swept up in the Y2K virus media fiasco.”

Let’s talk for a moment about general Y2K hysteria. Bear with me: it leads back to the Y2K virus media fiasco.

A rather humorous Associated Press newswire told how some computers displayed “19100” by accident. The list of embarrassments included GartnerGroup (a prominent Y2K vizier) and the official timekeeper for the United States. Network Associates suffered a similar Y2K snafu when their website displayed “January 1, 3900.”

Although amusing on the surface, AP noted an important point in passing: “Y2K planners generally feared that ’00’ would be interpreted by computers as 1900.” I searched the Internet for ‘19100’ and ‘3900’ in pre-Y2K stories & newswires. I found numerous (shall we say) non-mainstream references — yet practically no mainstream references.

Why not?

Did mainstream reporters perhaps quote the wrong Y2K experts?

Think about it. Who did the media most often quote in the “early days”? Answer: fearmongers. Who did they quote later? Answer: mainstream people who read fearmongers’ claims. They regurgitated what the fearmongers said. I believe “Y2K experts” fell into a trap of shallow thinking — by reading too many mainstream media reports about Y2K.

Hmmm. Didn’t I say the same thing years ago about “virus experts” who read too many mainstream media reports?

Never underestimate the mainstream media’s role in the spread of False Authority Syndrome. Empirical Research Systems (a computer industry polling firm) conducted a survey in 1991 of corporate employees tasked in some way with computer security. 43% of respondents — almost half — formed their opinions about viruses just by reading newspapers!

Newspaper reporters talk to these people to get details (and quotes) for a story. This means the press feeds information to virus pseudo-experts, who gladly regurgitate it for other reporters, who write more stories about viruses, which other pseudo-experts read… thus creating an endless circle of misinformation and a never-ending supply of “instant experts.”

This same survey concluded with a sad statistic: it estimates two-thirds of employees tasked with computer security duties have inadequate knowledge about computer viruses.

Let’s modify my original question. Did reporters perhaps quote the wrong Y2K virus experts? Think about it. Who did the media most often quote in the “early days”? Answer: fearmongers. Who did they quote later on? Answer: mainstream people who read fearmongers’ claims. They regurgitated what the fearmongers said.

Memo to Network Associates: I found a 1998 article for your Y2K manager.

Many reporters quoted Y2K experts about the threat of Y2K viruses. This leads to another important question — why did Y2K experts venture beyond the scope of their expertise?

Answer: they suffered from False Authority Syndrome.

CIOs should call Y2K experts onto the carpet, too. “The directors want to know why your Y2K analysis didn’t take ‘19100’ or ‘3900’ into account. You’ll speak right after the security manager presents the evidence he alluded to in his email server shutdown order…”