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The Persistence of Hoax

Vmyths - good ride while it lasted

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Vmyths.com is fading into the sunset, while the virus hoaxes it steadfastly debunked seem to live on forever, writes SecurityFocus columnist George Smith.

"I received the e-mail this morning from someone who got it from the governor's office," came the tired complaint.

Somewhere in the world, government workers in high place had fallen for the "Teddy Bear" hoax, a.k.a. "jdbgmgr.exe." Lemmings were heading for the cliff to delete the "virus," obeying the e-mail suggestions of the joker who wrote the trick. If one finds a file on the PC, anything cryptic-looking -- like a program with the stuffed toy for an icon, it must be a virus. Doubly so, if someone you know carries the news.

No one would stop to think that since they do not know anything of the contents of their computer, they weren't in any position to distinguish what is good or bad, what should be removed or not.

For months, even years, a wealth of information has existed on the net about Teddy Bear and still it comes on, wrote the correspondent.

Why?

Most people expect their computers to behave poorly. I do. Add to it a mystification on the true nature of computer viruses and fertile ground exists for manipulation.

Plus folks just aren't naturally the critical thinkers they would like to assume themselves to be.

In the work world where obedience to authority is the code everyone lives by, it's easy to just go along with the e-mail from someone superior, who must be, after all, superior in all things.

Entire legions are trained in this by corporate, academic and bureaucratic rule of law. Officially, if not by the coffee machine, the CEO of Carcinogens Corp. is omniscient. The Dean of Gobble-Wallah Tech is a flawlessly smart man. And the assistant Assistant Secretary of the Department of Homeland Purity -- she would never send out a mass e-mail warning if it weren't backed up with rock hard fact.
Users of anti-virus programs began asking questions like: "Why doesn't my software detect 'Bud Frogs' or 'BuddyList?'"

What isn't always spoken of are the many who just delete it silently on arrival without hitting the reply button to correct the mailer of the mess. They've reasoned it's not worth wasting the time to do so or that there is risk involved in such a process.

There's no simple way to correct the fooled and there are often penalties for doing it.

"Bloor, you were insubordinate to me in company mail," replied Carcinogens' CEO coldly.

Hoax Killing

Rob Rosenberger knew well the psycho-social mechanics of the virus hoax in the mid-90s. He was the first to set up an easily used, professional-looking archive documenting them -- a website which became popularly (or infamously, if you starred in its editorials) known as Vmyths.com round about 2000.

By then, the archive had accumulated tens of thousands of cites, links and references from government agencies, computer advice functions, the media and the corporate west. This was thanks to people who needed a place where they could diplomatically send peers prone to mesmerization by GoodTimes or "It Takes Guts to Say 'Jesus.'"

The compilation of hoax information was not sexy. It was tedious work and few were interested in it. For a while, the anti-virus industry viewed it as a waste of resources. Hoax pages were not something that could be pressed into service selling software.

The narrow mindset changed as Vmyths picked up reputation and users of anti-virus programs began asking questions like: "Why doesn't my software detect 'Bud Frogs' or 'BuddyList?'"

Indeed, what do you say when everyone knows it is the way of anti-virus software to miss new viruses until its next update? Hence the need for a-v pages which separate the real from the imagined.

Hoax killing is still not without interesting challenges in 2003.

It has and always will be a game of catch-up and no matter how much information one makes available, people have to be shown it again and again. But spam filters have become an unexpected and pitiless foe -- complicating the battle by their fiendishness.

The worst are prone to killing all e-mail that contains any mention of virus hoaxes by name. Subsequently, Vmyths now finds that sending out hoax alerts to people who had requested them regularly results in thousands of bounces when, unknown to the requestor, their ISP spam filter mindlessly declares such a bulletin unlawful.

So, Vmyths was a good ride while it lasted but it comes to an end when Rosenberger ships out for the Persian Gulf theatre of the war on terror tomorrow. Updates of the service will stop and there'll be no more hands-on debunking.

I'll miss it, but as former Editor-at-Large for the site, I'm not unbiased.

The archives will remain; others elsewhere might pull up some of the slack. Hoaxes will persist but those preyed upon by them will make it through.

Let's wish that Rosenberger's duty is only as long as necessary to win his part of the war and that he return free of disease and with all pieces intact.

George Smith is a Senior Fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense affairs think tank and public information group. He also edits the Crypt Newsletter and has written extensively on viruses, the genesis of techno-legends and the impact of both on society.

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