The Channel logo


By | Scott Granneman 11th February 2007 09:02

The Fear biz is the computer security biz

Lies, damn lies...

Comment Scott Granneman looks at the use of fear in computer security, from misleading media reports and gross exaggeration by industry leaders to the use of fear in order to sell new computers and software.

What are you afraid of? What causes you real fear, the kind that causes your heart to beat faster involuntarily, your stomach to sag like you've eaten lead, and your mind to lose its reason and revert to the primitive reactions of fight and flight? Spiders? Snakes? Serial killers? Speaking in public? Or the worst, the thing that freaks out almost everyone - scary clowns?

Those are what I what I would call primal fears, those that exist deep down in our subconscious. Other fears, however, are manufactured by politicians and the media (heck, some so-called "news" channels base their whole business on this practice) in order to manipulate us. John Twelve Hawks, in his perceptive essay How We Live Now, discusses this exact state of affairs:

"In his insightful book The Culture of Fear, Barry Glassner shows how many of our specific fears are created and sustained by media manipulation. There can be an enormous discrepancy between what we fear and the reality of what could happen to us. Glassner analyses several "threats" such as airplane disasters, youth homicide, and road rage, and proves that the chance of any of these dangers harming an individual is virtually nonexistent.

Although Glassner accurately describes the falseness of a variety of threats, he refrains from embracing any wide-reaching explanation. It can be argued that the constant message of impending destruction is simply a way for the media to keep us watching television - "Are cyber predators targeting your children?" is a tagline that is going to get the audience's attention.

What interests me is not the reality of these threats, but the effect they have on our view of the world. Fear encourages intolerance, racism and xenophobia. Fear creates the need for a constant series of symbolic actions manufactured by the authorities to show that yes, they are protecting us from all possible dangers."

Fear is no less powerful in the computer and security world, both as a motivator and as a de-motivator; in other words, fear can both cause people to engage in behaviours and prevent them from engaging in other behaviours. And just as in politics and TV, those who traffic in fear-mongering often do so in order to control end users, even though the end result of that fear is a cavalcade of negative emotions and beliefs.

This really hit home for me last Friday, when I spent the day upgrading my father-in-law Larry's computer from a really old, out of date installation of Xandros Linux to Mepis Linux. Yes, he uses Linux, and that's because of my own fears when I thought of him using Windows 98, the operating system on his first computer. After a year of worrying about viruses and worms, and actually having to clean up after a minor virus problem, I decided that enough was enough, and installed Linux on his box. He actually took well to it, and has been using Linux for at least five years now without incident.

On Friday, I wanted to make sure that his soft links and icons and programs were all in the places he was used to looking. I went through the icons on his desktop, and then I pointed to the icon on the KDE Panel that minimizes all open windows, revealing the Desktop. "Larry," I said, "do you ever click on that button?" His reply: "No. I don't know what it does, so I'm scared to click on it."

Wow. This is a smart guy, a man who majored in chemistry in college 60 years ago, worked at defense contractor McDonnell-Douglas throughout his career, and served as a city councilman for over 25 years. He's no dummy. He has a swimming pool in his backyard, and he absolutely lives to measure the pH balance of that pool's water during the summer so he can make the minute chemical adjustments needed to keep it pure. Yet he's scared of his computer.

A few days later, I saw what Bill Gates had to say in a recent Newsweek interview about the Mac as compared to Vista.

"I mean, it's fascinating, maybe we shouldn't have showed so publicly the stuff we were doing, because we knew how long the new security base was going to take us to get done. Nowadays, security guys break the Mac every single day. Every single day, they come out with a total exploit, your machine can be taken over totally. I dare anybody to do that once a month on the Windows machine."

My reaction, like most knowledgeable people who read this, was open-mouthed astonishment. Now, either Bill is heavily drugged and delusional, which I don't believe, or he's just completely ignorant, which I also discount, or he knows exactly what he's saying and has an ulterior motive. That's my best guess.

Bill Gates knows that he's at best exaggerating and at worst completely lying through his teeth. So why's he doing it? Because he also knows that Apple's new ads are helping Macs to sell like hot cakes, and that security is a big reason why a lot of people are throwing up their hands in disgust at Windows and switching to Apple's computers.

Who reads Newsweek? Not computer pros, but Joe and Jane Computer-user, and Joe and Jane tend to believe what they read in the mainstream media when it comes to computers, especially when that nice, smart philanthropist Bill Gates is the one saying it. He's Mr Computer, after all, so he must be right!

A few years ago, Steve Ballmer ranted about open source in the Chicago Sun-Times, bellowing that "Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches. The way the license is written, if you use any open-source software, you have to make the rest of your software open source".

This is obviously horsehockey, and it's just as obvious that Ballmer knew that it was horsehockey, but he said it anyway knowing that many readers of the Chicago Sun-Times would believe what he said because he is a rich, important businessman. Bill Gates' claim that "security guys break the Mac every single day" is just as ludicrous, and just as calculated.

In both cases, fear is the string these two maestros are plucking. The ignorant will come away from reading the earlier interview believing that Linux is dangerous and will doom their companies, while the latter interview may keep a few more people from switching to Mac OS because it's getting broken into every single day.

Now, Apple's ads haven't exactly disabused themselves from relying on fear either. The "Virus" ad in the "Get a Mac" campaign has the PC suffering from "that virus that's going around"; when the PC warns the Mac that there are "114,000 viruses for PCs," the Mac replies, "For PCs. But not for Macs." In another ad, "Trust Mac," the Mac says "I run Mac OS X, so I don't have to worry about your spyware and viruses" [emphasis added].

Notice that Apple's commercials don't say there aren't any viruses or spyware for Macs, just that the 114,000 for PCs don't affect Macs. Of course, a less attentive viewer could come away from that commercial believing that there aren't any viruses for Mac OS X, which actually wouldn't be too far off the mark, considering that there are virtually none (PDF). As for spyware, to my knowledge, there isn't any for Mac OS X, so that perception wouldn't be incorrect either.

Apple's website even states the situation in language that can't really be argued with: "A Mac running with factory settings will protect you from viruses much better than a PC, but it's never a bad idea to run extra virus and security software."

So yes, Apple uses fear to sell computers, but it's a heck of a lot more accurate in what it both says and implies, while Microsoft's leaders tend to nakedly push the buttons of fear willy-nilly, facts and reality be damned.

In fact, I wonder if it's possible to talk about security at all without invoking fear at some level. If that's true, then it comes down to how much respect the speaker has for his audience. It's sure easy to scare the bejesus out of uninformed computer users - the vast majority of computer users, in other words - but is that the best way to accomplish the goal that we'd all like to see realised: better security? Wouldn't it be better to treat users like rational adults and present them with facts and choices, instead of just exaggerating, and even lying, about security issues?

If users are already scared of their computers - and we all know many of them, like my father-in-law Larry, are - then freaking them out completely or distorting the truth is not going to make them less frightened, or more confident. Helping them make good decisions based on their needs and the reality of the world of computer security will, however, result in smarter computer users that are capable of making good choices.

Except when it comes to homicidal clowns. Nothing will make those things easier to deal with, especially when they come for you in the dark of night, chuckling softly through their yellow rotted teeth and red-gashed mouth as they reach out their white-gloved talons to grip your ankle, and then...

This article originally appeared in Security Focus.

Copyright © 2007, SecurityFocus

alert Send corrections


Frank Jennings

What do you do? Use manual typwriters or live in a Scottish croft? Our man advises
A rusty petrol pump at an abandoned gas station. Pic by Silvia B. Jakiello via shutterstock

Trevor Pott

Among other things, Active Directory needs an overhaul
Baby looks taken aback/shocked/affronted. Photo by Shutterstock

Kat Hall

Plans for 2 million FTTP connections in next four years 'not enough'
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella


League of gentlemen poster - Tubbs and Edward at the local shop. Copyright BBC
One reselling man tells his tale of woe