Barmy in cyberspace

August 17, 2005

When the mainstream media announces a programme focusing on anything remotely associated with the internet, one generally knows what to expect - something sensationalist. However if a TV channel which claims to have a reputation for accuracy does so, one expects at least a semblance of an effort to portray things as they really are.

On August 15, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Four Corners broadcast a programme titled, rather grandly, "Your Money and Your Life." This is the first time (at least recently) that the state-funded broadcaster has gone anywhere near identity theft and the issues surrounding this phenomenon. The man behind the programme, Quentin McDermott, was all over the place.

The pre-program publicity was rather jingoistic - it claimed the program would "reveal" that personal information of fair dinkum Australians was being sold in India. That a very similar revelation had been made by Britain's Sun tabloid a month or so ago did not apparently register with the ABC or poor old Q.

Indeed, when the programme came on air, it was clear that plenty had been poached from the Sun story. McDermott seemed oblivious to the fact that the personal details of many Europeans were also likely to have been on sale in India - for him there were three countries on the globe, the same three Anglo-Saxon nations which make up the coalition of the willing (or killing, depending on your interpretation) in Iraq.

McDermott began by dealing with the theft of identity details from CardSystems in the US - credit card information was stolen through a server breach in June. It was rather noticeable that even though he had spent a sizeable wad of taxpayers cash in travelling to the US, all the people he interviewed there for his programme, bar one, seemed to be marketing schlockmeisters.

To begin with, he got hold of a man at iDEFENSE, one of the shonkiest outfits when it comes to network security. Of course, he was looking for the chicken little kind of quotes - the sky is falling, the bad guys are out to get us and they will - and at the end of the first 15 minutes, even somewhat educated types would have been left with the impression that if they held a credit card in their hands, it would explode, or worse turn them into vapour.

McDermott also got a few sound bytes from Kevin Mitnick (whether Mitnick was paid for his cameo is not known), the hacker who's more of a confidence trickster than code guru. Why, if the ABC sent him as far as the US of A, he could not get in touch with people like Bruce Schneier, Richard Forno, Oded Horowitz, Chris Eng, Kevin Dunn, Neel Mehta, Dave Aitel or Mark Dowd, to name a few who have some credibility when they talk about security, one can't understand. Maybe he didn't do his homework. For that matter there are plenty of good people in Australia as well. About the only real expert who appeared on the programme was Chris Hoofnagle from the Electronic Privacy Information Centre.

So much for the first 15 minutes, But Quentin wasn't done for the night, yet. In a sudden transformation, he moved to India and here he showed that neither he nor the programme's directors knew the difference between one kind of ID theft and another. In India - and this is something which any Indian who is honest about his own country could have told McDermott - corruption is a way of life. And those ain't my words, they were uttered by the second woman to become the prime minister of a country, Indira Gandhi. So to find employees of a company selling data or anything else for a buck, isn't surprising.

McDermott was doing a story on ID theft but first he had to build up the mood by focusing on some of the poorer Indian masses pulling rickshaws and those who were begging on the streets. This, of course, has little to do with ID theft but a Western audience laps it up. Having oiled the wheels, Quentin plunged in. His angle was that the call centre staff who had sold the details to a broker were doing so to make an extra buck. In other words, "low-paid workers" were out to make a bit of moolah. But of course, what evaded this genius is the fact that even extremely rich people do the same thing - an example in the news in Australia recently has been Steve Vizard, who was a director of the country's biggest telco, Telstra, when he indulged in insider trading - to make a bit of moolah.

The remainder of what followed bordered on silly but who was going to tell Quentin that? We had him talking to an Indian journalist whose face was not shown - he was working undercover, we were told - who had been the means whereby the Sun reporter made contact with a broker who sold him personal details of Brits. This air of mystery, by the way, is standard for Four Corners. It appears to be one of the aspects that qualifies it as investigative journalism.

We also got to see some footage of the Sun journalist talking to the broker - the actual story which Quentin was "investigating." Never mind that the central "revelation" had already been revealed - you can always kill a goose twice.

Had McDermott found out how exactly these Indian call centre workers were getting hold of personal details to sell - do they memorise the details and then write them down after work or do they copy them on disks or CDs - he could have claimed to have done some investigation. As it stood, the programme was merely a bad retelling of a story which had already been told.

Quentin's producers did a grand job - there were plenty of scenes where zeroes and ones scrolled across the screen while a Citibank "educational" video played in the centre of the screen. Whether the ABC received royalties for giving Citibank the publicity is not known. And I lost count of the number of times the stereotyped word "hacker" was used.

To top if off, Quentin also provided some gross misinformation. The director of the SANS Institute, some dude who looked like a used car salesman, got away with saying that any computer connected to the internet would be taken over in 20 minutes. Last I heard, that was only true for Windows computers - and the time was down to 12 minutes. Linux or Mac OS X will definitely last much longer than that. But poor Q does't know that.

The ABC does by and large screen topical programs. This wasn't one of them. Why did such a program run? It wasn't investigative and it was poor journalism. One can only account for it when one realises that the closing date for entries for the Walkley Awards for journalism is September 2.