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Internet security scaremongering obscures real threats - expert

Monday, November 17th 2014 by Ellen Branagh

Internet viruses or bugs may devastate lives, but are unlikely to bring the "end of the world", a cyber security expert has said.

Professor Mike Jackson told Cable.co.uk that dramatic internet security scares make it difficult for people to know when they are actually going to be affected.

Warnings about the catastrophic effects of malware or viruses regularly attract media attention.

The latest to hit the headlines was a vulnerability in Microsoft’s Office software that allows hackers access to someone’s PC if they open an infected file.

Before that, there was Shellshock, a bug in a tool known as Bash, which is used by the Unix operating system, as well as Linux systems and Apple’s OSX.

Another one to spark panic was Heartbleed, a vulnerability in a piece of open source software which encrypts communications between a computer and a web server, that was feared would allow attackers to steal data from servers.

But many of these bugs seem to have fewer effects than are described in warnings to the public, said Prof Jackson.

The cyber security expert, from Birmingham City University, said headlines could be damaging because they often overemphasise things, but can also encourage companies to prepare for them and put fixes in place to limit the effects.

He said: "It's very difficult for people to understand exactly when they're likely to be affected and when they're not likely to be affected.

"I really do feel that headlines are sometimes very damaging, because usually they overemphasise things and they make us think there is going to be disaster.

"If you go back to the year 2000 there was this thing going round about the Millennium Bug which was to do with the date changing, and there was quite a lot of activity warning people about this and saying that aeroplanes would fall out of the sky, everything would stop.

"I think that bug was addressed in advance and some of the worst aspects were actually dealt with by companies doing an audit and finding out if there was likely to be a problem in their company and fixing things.

"So that scare story was actually quite good.”

Prof Jackson said headlines are sometimes useful for making it "apparent to people who need to be making changes that those changes should be made".

He cited Heartbleed, which was described by some experts as “catastrophic” when it emerged, and said coverage of the potentially disastrous effects had succeeded in making many people - including himself - change their passwords and up security.

But he said that although the often-predicted worldwide disasters have not happened, that did not mean that people do not suffer sometimes "devastating" effects on an individual basis.

"What was sad about it was that afterwards everybody said that nothing happened. Things did happen and things did go wrong.

"I don't think there is ever going to be one thing that happens which everybody in the world is suddenly going to be hit by and everyone will suffer from.

"Every time we hear about one of these bugs that comes up there are people who are affected and for them on an individual basis those effects can be quite profound, they could be seeing money going out of their bank account, they can have parts of their personal data stolen, or they can see their computers wrecked.

"On the individual level these things can be quite devastating. Each time we see one of those bugs reported you can be absolutely sure that somebody is at the wrong end of it.

"But end of the world is a bit wrong. It's unlikely that we shall see the whole world suddenly brought to a standstill because of the bugs that appear.”

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