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Fighting security FUD

Bill BrennerI recently tripped over a blog write-up from independent analyst Eric Ogren about his irritation with security vendors using FUD to sell products. It’s an older posting from 2006 but his message is as relevant today as it was two years ago.

Building his case around a threat report Websense released at the time, he wrote, “I’m not sure that the world is better off with yet another security vendor telling us that Phishing, malicious websites, malicious code, hacking tools, P2P, IM and Chat attacks have all increased.”

He dismissed the report as FUD marketing designed to create demand for security products, but that he believed the reports could actually have the opposite effect by pointing out the futility of security products to stop attacks.

He’s not the first security expert to rail against the FUD factor. Security luminary Bruce Schneier has devoted huge chunks of his time speaking out against security ‘theatre’ — policies and products that are more about offering the perception of security rather than addressing the actual risks. Security Blog Log

And, rightly or wrongly, the Apple crowd is constantly crying FUD whenever something is written about a security flaw or malware affecting their beloved Macs.

I bring up the issue because it’s long been a source of irritation for me. As a security writer, I’m constantly buried beneath tons of voicemail and email from vendors looking for attention, and the PR machinery almost always uses FUD to make a case for buying the latest compliance-out-of-the-box appliance or the “first of its kind” bot/spyware/worm/common cold zapper.

Along the way, the PR community likes to invent new words or phrases to define the threat, many of which start with the letters “ph” (phishing, pharming, phlooding).

I’ve been looking back through four years of writing for the sake of nostalgia. The big thing that strikes me is that we’ve written a lot of stories about the latest flaw or exploit and someone is always banging on the alarm bell with a hammer.

In the final analysis, it’s prudent to flag the latest flaws and exploits because IT security professionals need to be aware of these things and incorporate the information into their patch management process. Heck, alerting them to these things is what we’re here for. But the tone and level of alarm that should go into these stories is always something we wrestle with.

Everyone has a role to play in information security, from the IT pros to the vendors, analysts and media. But from the content I look back on, I see little evidence that vendor-generated fear has ever made a difference.

Warnings about some flaw or exploit opening the door for a catastrophic Internet-ending event are never followed by the big doom. On the other side of the spectrum, the epidemic of data security breaches shows that all the FUD and security spending in the world can’t prevent the bad guys from punching through. The recent Hannaford supermarkets breach proves you can respond to the fear and spend a lot of money on new technology and still get whacked.

I recently asked Rhode Island-based network engineer Edward Ziots whether he jumps at every exploit warning. Here’s what he told me by email:

We don’t jump, it would be imprudent to do so. Basically I read up on how the exploit works, even look at the code offline to ascertain if it would be available to be downloaded or how much effort would it take to be in a working exploit. Next, you basically need to adjust your risk assessment based on the controls you have in house, and how many systems could be affected and in what manner.

“Lastly communicate the adjusted risk assessment to management, security and await decision on whether to raise priority for patching, or to deploy other security measures to mitigate until all systems can be patched.

“Honestly, it makes it very difficult with exploit code in the wild and reports of working exploits not to raise your risk level and deploy extra manpower and time and effort to get all systems patched. It’s just due diligence.”

My advice is to take the FUD with a grain of salt and remember that while cyberspace is a dangerous place and you’ll sometimes have to raise your level of alertness as Ziots does, most enterprises will survive with the proper mix of security tools, policies and a calm awareness of the risks.

About Security Blog Log: Senior News Writer Bill Brenner peruses security blogs each day to see what’s got the information security community buzzing. In this column he lists the weekly highlights. If you’d like to comment on the column or bring new security blogs to his attention, contact him at bbrenner@techtarget.com.

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Best of luck, Bill, as you begin your next adventure. On behalf of PR practitioners, though, while you choose to take us to task in your blog from time to time, please keep in mind that the proliferation of FUD is only enhanced by media coverage. While you may choose to point the finger at PR folks, remember that you only continue to get pitched FUD because you continue to cover it. As you point out: "The big thing that strikes me is that we’ve written a lot of stories about the latest flaw or exploit and someone is always banging on the alarm bell with a hammer." So, I would pose this question to you: "If a PR person bangs on an alarm with a hammer and no journalists are around to hear it (or acknowledge it) -- did it really happen?" At the end of the day, I certainly agree with your parting advice and that folks should take all of the FUD with a grain of salt. However, as long as journalists continue to follow their edict to generate "clicks" versus what was once considered by many to be higher value editorial content, my guess is that the FUD factor won't get better any time soon.
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