Jan 20 2009

Believe it — reporters yawned over nine million infected PCs

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My original notion for this column centered on the media hysteria I expected from F-Secure’s huffing over variants of the Downadup worm. Quoting from a (level-headed) story in The Register:

[The Downadup worm] that attacks a patched vulnerability in Microsoft Windows, is making exponential gains if estimates from researchers at F-Secure are accurate. They show 6.5 million new infections in the past four days, bringing the total number of machines it has compromised to almost 9 million. The astronomical growth stunned some researchers, although others cautioned the numbers could be inflated since the counting of infected computers is by no means an exact science. Most agreed F-Secure’s estimate was certainly plausible and if it proved to be correct, represented a major development in the world of cyberthreats.

6.5 million newly infected PCs, you say? All of them whacked in a four-day period? Hmmm. The timing of this makes me wonder how many of those PCs showed up under the plastic tannenbaum.

Yet it would seem my worries about hysteria have died on the vine. Consider the following:

The media yawned when F-Secure claimed the Downadup worm tallied another 6.5 million PCs in a four-day period…

Snapshot of Trend Micro website 1/19/09

Trend Micro displayed NO medium- or high-risk alert on their 'vinfo' page

Only Kaspersky Labs seems to have given F-Secure some shrift when they announced a virus alert on their website. Yet they only identified it as a moderate risk. So, uh … let’s call it “short shrift” and leave it at that.

The media, too, seems to have collectively yawned over F-Secure’s declaration. One CNN Headline News anchor — dare I say it? — almost smirked while reading from the teleprompter. (In all fairness, it isn’t the first time a CNN mannequin has smirked or spoken in an upbeat tone about a devastating computer virus attack.)

This non-media circus reminds me yet again of Aesop’s fable of the boy who cried wolf. F-Secure, on the other hand, will doubtless call up the Cassandra fable to dismiss any accusations of wolf-crying.

One quote in The Register‘s story leapt out at me for its irony:

“This thing has gotten way out of hand,” said Paul Ferguson, a security researcher for anti-virus provider Trend Micro who has spent the past several weeks tracking the worm’s progress. “It seems pretty spectacular to me that there could be that much growth.”

I dismiss Ferguson’s quote as ironic because Trend Micro’s “vinfo” page hasn’t declared a medium- or high-risk alert. How can we take him at face value when his company doesn’t even wail about it on an alert page?

Antivirus vendors and computer news reporters have certainly suffered a drought of hysteria in the past few years — and I myself fret that we’re due for another hystericane.

F-Secure will doubtless call up the Cassandra fable to dismiss any accusations of wolf-crying…

Why, then, hasn’t the Downadup worm generated “the perfect storm” of media hysteria?

The answer may lie in an amazing buildup to America’s “double major holiday.” Yesterday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day while today sees the inauguration of Barack Obama. News organizations appear highly focused on the orgasm of festivities in Washington, DC—

—and the media’s infatuation with U.S. politics may have simply overshadowed everything else of importance.

“You sound a bit facetious, Rob.” Yeah, okay: you caught me. Longtime readers will recall the fact government experts reminisce about the Nimda worm as a global catastrophe that cost billions of dollars and that would have qualified as one of the worst acts of cyber-terrorism ever caught on tape. And those experts still bemoan the fact it didn’t get much airplay … because it came just one week after the equally devastating physical terrorism of 9/11/01.

First Nimda; now Downadup. This leads me to ask a philosophical question. “Why do the world’s most devastating computer security attacks always seem to take place when reporters are too preoccupied to give it the attention it truly deserves?”

  • By GsparkyNo Gravatar, 21 January 2009 @ 9:52 pm

    Thanks, Rob! I’ve been getting tired of all of my non-computer friends asking, “Should I turn my computer off? Should I unplug it? What should I do?” Of course, the last one that asked, I just said (in a serious tone), “Unplug it? That might not be enough.”

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