Apr 27 2009

Hysteria in the making? Computer security experts lack focus on Twitter

Can you say "intelligence stovepipe"?
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Intelligence officials use the term “stovepipe” to describe “several ways in which raw [computer security] intelligence information may be presented without proper context… The lack of context may come from a particular group, in the [computer security] structure, selectively presenting only that information that supports certain conclusions.”

Multiple employees spout their personal opinions on McAfee’s official Twitter account. How long will this lack of corporate discipline continue?

In short, a “stovepipe” problem can lead to mass hysteria. And I’ve got a sneaking suspicion Twitter will help foment hysteria when the next media-darling worm or virus comes along.

On the corporate side, the context of any tweet about the latest worm will quickly get lost in the din of tweets about booth bunnies, white papers, and the occasional vetting failure.

“What’s a vetting failure, Rob?” It occurs when a company doesn’t limit / review official communications before release. For example, multiple non-PR employees use McAfee’s Twitter account to broadcast their own personal opinions. Their lack of discipline is a vetting failure in the making as we can see in this example from 27 Apr 09:

McAfeeAvertLabs: Hi! If you think I add value to your network, do drop me a recommendation at http://mrtweet.com/McAfeeAv… Much appreciated!

McAfeeAvertLabs: we just started following @MrTweet…. might take a few days! my bad!

Then, of course, McAfee tweets commercial advertisements (aka “spam”). This fact raises two philosophical questions. First: does a mature firm in the computer security industry need to advertise to offset the cost of a free service like Twitter? Second: why do some reporters feel compelled to subscribe to computer security spam?

It’s only a matter of time before we learn McAfee’s offi­cial stand on abor­tion & gun control…

On the personal side, the computer security experts themselves seem far too wrapped up in their own celebrity status. The context of any tweet on the latest worm will get lost in the din of tweets about their speaking engagements and the bad airline food they endured. Check out these actual tweets from computer security experts:

  • Mark Sunner (MessageLabs): “if you loved the lion the witch and the wardrobe et al then you will find this book mesmerizingly insightful http://www.planetnarnia.com/”
  • Costin Raiu (Kaspersky Labs): “Tried a Segway for the first time, with the very nice chaps from segwaybooking.com.”
  • Graham Cluley (Sophos): “can’t believe i missed watching Dr Who live again.. what kind of fan am i anyway? thank goodness for the pvr…”
  • Mary Landesman (antivirus.about.com): “Time Warner: yeah, our service sucks, but we’re a monopoly so we’ll just charge more and give less. Congressman fights back. http://tiny …”
  • Mikko Hypponen (F-Secure): “Hey, since when has Twitter automatically converted ‘normal’ links to Tinyurls? My previous tweet should have pointed to f-secure.com…”
  • Costin Raiu (Kaspersky Labs): “20 people at the Shuntaint presentation, where is everybody else?”

Yes yes yes, I’ll grant you the fact these experts opened their own personal Twitter accounts. Yes yes yes, I’ll grant you the fact they can say just about anything they want. But it doesn’t change the fact their tweets lack focus.

McAfee uses Twitter for spam to help pay for all those free tweets they send out. Their own web­site just can’t sup­port their PR needs…

To put it simply: computer security tweets lack focus at both the personal and corporate levels. And that’s bad news for us. Undisciplined experts can easily generate hysteria with a “speak first, thinkignore later” tweetitude.

On the bright side, reporters might soon get tired of all these unfocused tweets … and stop following the potential hypemongers.

Take computer security reporter John Leyden, for example — his Twitter account follows McAfee Avert Labs and MessageLabs bigwig Mark Sunner and Sophos bigwig Graham Cluley. Do you honestly think Leyden cares about McAfee’s official stand on abortion or Sunner’s latest book review for Home Schooling magazine or Cluley’s inability to time-shift a TV time traveler?

It’s only a matter of time before Leyden himself realizes he doesn’t care about these unfocused tweets … and stops following the potential hypemongers. Let’s just hope he stops following them for the right reasons.

(I suspect he will, given the fact he follows the Vmyths Twitter account…)


Vmyths suffered a similar problem in the early 2000s when I expanded this website both to critique the antivirus industry in general and to serve as an outlet for my computer security humor.

Tabloid repor­ters may follow a com­pu­ter secu­rity expert’s unfocused blogs & tweets.

Re­spec­table jour­nalists must stop the practice.

I finally launched SecurityCritics and HumorControl so Vmyths could return to its paladin roots.

But hey, let’s not overlook the fact I myself lack focus in my totally personal blog. I opine on everything from computer security to local gas price gouging to the amazing poker hands I’ve been dealt to a newly minted word to describe Wikipedia.

The key here is that I don’t view my personal blog as something that will change the world and I don’t see myself as wrapped up in my own celebrity status. (Well, except maybe here I do, but that’s it.)

I try to change the world through my focused efforts at Vmyths, SecurityCritics, and (yes!) HumorControl. If you subscribe to my personal blog, I urge you to review all of your blog/tweet subscriptions to see which ones lack focus. If any other computer security experts out there claim they don’t use Twitter to change the world, then be sure to cancel your subscriptions to their tweets as well.

Remember those hysterical chain-letter emails? Now imagine hysterical chain-letter tweets … from the experts themselves.

If, on the other hand, you subscribe to my personal blog because you’re that totally amazing lover who gently cradled me in her arms during that horrific time of grief after my wife died … yes honey, you follow my blog for all the right reasons and I can’t thank you enough for our wonderful midwestern tryst and I could sure use another digital snapshot of you as the previous one got, uh, “messed up” along with my keyboar—

—ahh, but you’ll notice I lack focus in the previous paragraph. {ahem} Let’s not digress. (And let’s not tell anyone about my keyboard spills, okay? Thanks, I appreciate it.)

Let’s hope the rest of the computer security industry realizes their lack of focus on Twitter … before they plunge into an intelligence stovepipe when the next media-darling worm or virus comes along.

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  • By ShaunDayNo Gravatar, 28 April 2009 @ 11:58 am

    As I type, the two most recent tweets from McAfee are not about computer viruses, but about a human virus – namely the swine flu. Vaguly interesting I guess. There’s far too much stovepiping in the media already.


    Anger Rage

  • By dharleyNo Gravatar, 3 May 2009 @ 5:10 am

    Without wishing to be absorbed in my own celebrity status, I have two reasons for spending time on twitter. (1) Early security info is now getting onto twitter before it gets onto specialist lists and sometimes -instead- of seclists. Occasionally, that makes it worth skimming the dross. I haven’t yet decided whether the additional skimming on facebook is worth the time overhead, but it has its recreational advantages. (2) Facebook supports my work-related blogging, which may not change the world very much, but is meant to, a bit at a time.

    I presume those swine flu tweets are about using the flu as a social engineering hook, which is happening a lot, rather than about the flu itself, but I haven’t checked ‘em.

  • By GrahamCluleyNo Gravatar, 29 May 2009 @ 10:34 am

    I reckon over 99% of my Tweets aren’t about Dr Who, so although I may not have 20-20 vision my focus is pretty good. :)

    PS. When talking to John Leyden on the phone he’s often discussed “Doctor Who” with me (I imagine next time he calls he’ll ask my opinions on the new companion who was announced to the world today), so I doubt he’ll unfollow me for that reason. ;-)

  • By Rob RosenbergerNo Gravatar, 29 May 2009 @ 12:03 pm

    I agree, Graham. Half of Leyden’s tweets right now seem to revolve around his kickball team.

    But hey, if it’s any consolation … you only appeared in my column because I couldn’t resist the line about “Cluley’s inability to time-shift a TV time traveler.” :-)

    On a serious note: I hope my observations will shift the way AV experts use Twitter. When I read something like “on the way home, I posted a letter!”, I expect to see it in Justin Hayward’s diary, not an antivirus expert’s tweet.

    I view Twitter much like I view the telephone. Sure, you might work out of your home office, but you install a second phone line in the name of professionalism. You don’t want the CEO of BuggleWarp Corp. to hear “yeah, I think he’s surfing in the den room. DAD! Some guy on the phone for you…”

    AV experts need a professional Twitter account just like they need a professional phone line.

    Either that, or we need the CNN news ticker to start tweeting us on all the great things Robin Meade is doing at every hour of the day. “Obama unveils new cyber security report … N Korea detonates fourth nuclear test … Wolf Blitzer getting a bit fussy in the makeup chair…”

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