First published: 06th July 2010
A journalist contacted me recently. It's a long time since the heady days of LoveLetter, Code Red and Slammer when anti-virus experts were in hot demand, so it was a little excitement on a quiet Sunday afternoon. But what did the journalist want to hear about? "The new Shanghai Expo virus that arrives in an email and destroys computers."
That's a difficult question to answer, because there isn't one. Well, there was a targeted email sent to some journalists in March with a trojan PDF attachment, but that is not new, not a virus, and was not "destroying" computers (or even wiping data and programs). On the other hand, malefactors are sending out spam with malicious attachments using all sorts of news-worthy events as a hook, so maybe there was one that I had not seen, or had reported, yet. The important message is not about this particular, possibly fictional, example, but about the real threat from people using messages like this to infect your computer and use it to silently steal valuable information (your online banking password, perhaps), or use it to launch further attacks as a zombie in a botnet.
The journalist did not seem impressed by my explanation, and I don't think he quoted me. Even the mention of breaking into bank accounts failed to excite, I suppose it didn't match the "Deadly New Disease Spreading" story he had already half-written.
It would be wrong to blame the journalist alone for this, we are all complicit. The public expect their news to be, well, new, and it is so accessible that each story has only a short time to have a lasting effect. Experts know they only have a small window of opportunity to get their message across, so they trim it down to the most important essentials. In the right conditions, an essential point can become common knowledge, but it trains people to expect short, simple answers, which is bad in the long term.
We live in a highly complex, technology-rich world. How can we address the challenge of raising the general level technical understanding?