Fear Sells

April 2, 2009

I caught the opening segment of “60 Minutes” on Sunday night, which introduced the dreaded Conficker computer virus to millions of viewers in a story that instilled more fear than a typical winter weather advisory from meteorologists here in the Twin Cities.  The piece begins: “The Internet is infected. Malicious computer hackers have been creating more and more weapons that they plant on the Internet. They call their weapons viruses and worms–they’re creepy, crawly toxic software that contaminate our computers without us ever knowing it. You can be infected by simply visiting your favorite Web site, or just by leaving your computer on overnight while you’re asleep.”  And this was the least alarming part of the story.60-minutes

Next, an executive from Symantec, the biggest maker of anti-virus software, explained that “with one click, the worm’s creator can instruct it to suck sensitive data, like bank passwords and account numbers, out of millions of computers” and showed Leslie Stahl how a simple visit to Facebook could put her at risk.  When asked about what could eliminate the threat, the Symantec executive, not surprisingly, pointed to top-notch, regularly updated, security software.

Was it a compelling story?  Sure, but it also must have left the marketing department at Symantec high-fiving until their hands were bleeding.  I mean, this was an unprecedented opportunity for them.  Not only did it manage to scare people into thinking that every keystroke could cost them their life savings, but their products were positioned as the only solution when it comes to protecting yourself.

Now, I’m in no way taunting the power of the Conficker virus and certainly not questioning the power of media relations.  I simply thought the coverage of the story was a little curious for a news program like “60 Minutes.”   Why not mention that Macintosh computers are not affected by Conficker?  How about tapping an impartial expert to offer a few tips for avoiding viruses online?   How about a little information on the patch Microsoft created to protect against infection?

I don’t doubt that we all need anti-virus software to battle the worms that are being created constantly, but the skeptic in me would rather hear the case supported by a third-party source in addition to the executive from Symantec. As a wise man once told me: If you want to know if you need a haircut, don’t ask the barber.