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February 02 Issue

Matt Shipton
...all it takes is one desperate vendor to release its own tailored virus and then it is a virus 'protection' racket.

Image © Carine Thomas' 02
What you own is not good enough. Your car is not good enough, the latest model is so high-tech that yours is a steam tractor in comparison. Your TV is not good enough, do you have all the channels, do you have them in digital and is it widescreen? Your computer is not good enough, there is not enough RAM, the processor is too slow and the operating system you have, well, you can forget about content-rich multimedia web experiences.

Hype is a reality of technology driven companies trying to convince a sluggish public that they really need the upgrade. It can come in various guises from the teaser advertising campaign to the lazy journalist who prints the PR guru's release with minimal alteration. It can come in a form so as to play on a gullible public's fears, the fear of intrusion, the fear of loss of control and, yes, the fear that someone out there has it in for you.

An industry that really should know better is the IT security industry, those guardians of the gates, those warriors of the weak. Last year it seemed all to be reaching flashpoint, reports of hackers stealing credit cards, companies leaving giant chunks of personal details accessible over the internet and, of course, half a dozen virus's reaping corporate havoc. Yet we never reached the flashpoint, contrary to the messages being sent out, life did go on as normal and our computers survived. We must be thankful, the warnings must have galvanised us into action, and network administrators everywhere swiftly fixed the holes in their servers and updated their anti-virus software.

Except they didn't, well not straight away, at the beginning of this year a MessageLab survey suggested that around a quarter of all administrators had not fixed the vulnerability in Microsoft's IIS webserver that Code Red exploited. It's not a complicated fix, it is just an update from the Microsoft support site, the most common reason given was that there wasn't time when they heard about it and then they forgot. This was the virus that was so devastating that the US Government felt compelled to issue a statement that the internet might shut down. It didn't, and bandwidth was barely impinged upon.

So why the drama, why the histrionics? For the same reason as any hype campaign, to raise awareness of the brand, to shift more units of their products, nothing unusual there; but herein lies the rub. Upon hearing a virus warning most companies do not suddenly purchase a new virus checker, they just update the one they currently own, this goes for home users too. Whilst new computers are still being bought there is a finite amount of people in the world and when they all own a copy of an anti-virus software the money will stop rolling in. In fact it's something that's beginning to occur, Network Associates, owner of the McAfee brand of anti-virus software, has just released results that suggest they are not shifting as many units as they once did. I suspect that Computer Associates, Symantec and the others will also reflect this.

The next step to try to increase income is for the next generation of virus checker to charge for the updates. Alarm bells ringing yet? If the threat of virus's increases like before the hype will get louder and louder, forcing us to dig deeper and deeper into our wallets with the real threat largely obscured by the perceived one. Take that scenario a little further and all it takes is one desperate vendor to release its own tailored virus and then it is a virus 'protection' racket.

In reality, we hope, this would not happen but the possibility is there. So add a healthy dash of cynicism when reading about the next great threat to our way of life and remember the poems of Chuck D and Flava Flav, 'Don't believe the hype, don't, don't, don't believe the hype.'

© Matt Shipton 2002

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