Thursday, March 24, 2005

Syndicating the Scare Story

From the Associated Press comes this world-syndicated sensation:

"Hackers gained personal information of 59,000 people affiliated with a California university - the latest in a string of high-profile cases of identity theft."

We have here pretty much a full house of tabloid assumptions. Something happened to a computer so it was hackers, and they gained personal information so it's a case of identity theft.

One of the worst things about the invention of the jargon "identity theft" is that unlike the old "fraud" or "obtaining money by deception", "identity theft" can be thrown around willy-nilly. Even when no fraud is committed, you can run the tabloid line.

"Hackers gained access to the victims' names and Social Security numbers."

"We still have no indication that the information was used for anything other than somebody wanting to have illegal access to this server," Wills said. "Typically, on a college campus that can be to download files, music and games. There's still no indication they were looking to take personal information."

Hang on ... ID theft and "no indication they were looking to take personal information" in the same event? I suppose consistency is too much to ask for...

The wire piece then jumps from "no indication" of ID theft to create a forced link to the "big picture":

"Identity theft is considered the nation's fastest-growing crime and last year more than 9.9 million Americans were victims."

It then recites other computer break-in stories.

By the time I wrote this, the story had been syndicated like mad: more than 150 news sites carried the AP story. Dozens of journalists even had the hide to slap their bylines on the piece, although they did nothing to deserve it.

Once you have a piece like this get cred through syndication, the next thing that happens is that a battalion of camp-followers will then jack on the back of the big story – essentially exploiting the news value for their own publicity. The US has replaced "reds under the bed" with terrorists. So it's no surprise that the AP story has now given birth to a clutch of piggyback pieces in which security experts of all kinds try and spook us with stories of terrorism and ID theft.

And all on the back of one trashy syndication from the AP.