Freedom From Fear

Don't fall prey to security vendors' hype and scare tactics.

When a major worm or virus strikes, a wave of anxiety sweeps over most of us.

But there are some who, I imagine, become quite happy, who smile, rub their hands together and, like Mr. Burns of "The Simpsons," exclaim, "Excellent!" I am thinking about some anti-virus and security vendors because, after all, who doesnt like a chance to increase business?

The best security companies know enough to be reserved in their announcements about virus threats and not blow every problem out of proportion. They know that this kind of behavior does neither them nor their customers any good.

But some security companies have no such restraint. These companies live to get themselves written about in the IT and general press and will use scare tactics, hype and exaggeration to get attention. Theyll discover minor, nearly unexploitable security problems and publicize them to the level of an Internet apocalypse. Theyll make outrageous claims of impending doom that go against what everyone else in the security community believes, but that might make good print to an unsuspecting reporter. And theyll regularly release "major" studies with "surprising" conclusions that typically use questionable data and methodologies.

These companies make Internet security worse, not better. If you handle security for your company, you know what I mean. Youre busy enough dealing with legitimate security bulletins. The last thing you need is to have to check every announcement to see if the company making it is respectable. You dont have time to do searches on BugTraq or call your contacts in the security community to see if proclamations of doom from a security company youve never heard of are worth your time and effort.

Worse, even if you know a report is exaggerated, you may not be able to ignore it. Your boss may demand that you do something about it. Good luck trying to explain that the security hole is mainly theoretical and would be impossible to exploit in your company. Most likely, youll have to take valuable time away from real security problems.

Meanwhile, the security company that made the announcement got some press coverage and may get a couple of customers to boot.

The press has a lot of responsibility here. At eWEEK, security is a core area of coverage, and our main security writer, Dennis Fisher, has so much experience in security and so many contacts in the security community that he can detect bogus security reports immediately. But general-press reporters who have no such experience cant tell one security company from another. As a result, they are the main targets of hyped reports.

So how can we silence these scare merchants and get the word out to IT workers, who have enough real security problems to deal with?

The biggest hurdle is being able to tell the hype machines from the real security companies. The security community itself is best equipped to help with this, but few wish to attack other security companies, rightly realizing that doing so would look like competitive bickering.

Some security consultants do point out the worst offenders in hype and scare tactics. A noted security analyst, Richard Forno, has written several articles exposing companies that spread fear, uncertainty and doubt. One of these is an excellent piece that can be found at It breaks down the hype that surrounded the hacker defacement challenge earlier this year., a great site for exposing hoaxes and security hype, has a hysteria roll call at Unfortunately, the site is in danger of expiring because its founder, Rob Rosenberger, is serving in the Persian Gulf.

But as long as real security problems exist, there will be people who try to exploit the fear and danger for their own gain. I recommend identifying a few sources of security information as trustworthy and questioning other sources. When you do see a security release or study that crosses into hype and scare tactics, send it to me. I promise to check it out so that we can get the word out in time to shut down these fearmongers.

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eWEEK Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at