Why is technology news not news?


I’ve been wondering a bit about the way technology news is still ghettoised. I don’t mean news about the latest rubbish web 2.0 start-up with a ridiculous name. I mean quite important stuff. Security problems and the like.

Take what happened last week. A patch to fix a major flaw in the DNS was released. It is pretty important stuff. But the only mentions of it have been ghettoised in the darkest recesses of the technology sections, cordoned off in yellow and black tape with “warning: geeks only” written on it.

I don’t watch the television much these days, so I might be wrong. But I saw no mention of it on the news. I heard no mention of it on the radio. You certainly don’t hear people talking about it on the streets or in pubs.

You might think, “So what? Security update for X, Y and Z are released every day. You can’t have the news reporting it every day.” But something extra happened with that security update that was released last week: it crippled many users’ computers. Including my parents’ computer.

It is just as well I was still able to use my computer to try and find out what the problem was and how to workaround it. It turned out that ZoneAlarm threw a hissy-fit after Windows XP had updated and prevented users from accessing the internet.

In fairness, the BBC reported this on their website — but that’s not very useful if you’ve got no internet. Perhaps there are still people scratching their head about why they’ve not been able to access the internet for the past week.

The problem is twofold. One, the mainstream media seems quite averse to any technology story unless it’s to do with [say this like a caveman] “GOOGLE” or “APPLE”. Or “GOOGLE”. Simply, if you want to find out anything meaningful about technology you have to really know where to look for it.

And this brings me on to the second part of the problem. The people who don’t know where to look for information are also the most vulnerable users. There are people who, for whatever reason, can’t be motivated to take proactive measures to prevent themselves from the various security issues that inevitably arise when you use the internet.

I have a friend who bought a new computer a few weeks ago. The other day he complained to me that his new computer has already got spyware on it. The thing is that it’s not difficult to protect yourself really.

I’m not really a computer expert in the slightest, but I know the basics of how to protect myself — essentially keep all your software updated with the latest patches and don’t click any dodgy links. I don’t think it’s really a difficult concept. And — touch wood — these basics have worked for me. Since I got my own computer early last year I’ve never had anything worse than a tracking cookie on my computer (as far as I know — I just know that this is an invitation for my computer to explode under the weight of pop-ups tomorrow…).

But even simple measures like these that anyone can take are difficult to get through to some people. So many people still treat computers with awe. It is sometimes easy to forget how foreign computers are to many people.

I remember a couple of years ago when there was a really bad signalling failure on the train line into Edinburgh. Basically every train was cancelled. An old lady pointed to the automated departure monitor and asked why it said a list of trains towards the bottom of the screen were still listed as being on time.

This is what she said in protest (as though it would make her more likely to get on a train to Edinburgh): “I thought computers were wonderful things that never ever went wrong.” But even my basic knowledge of how computers work told me exactly why the trains were still listed as being ‘on time’ — because they hadn’t even departed from their start station, so hadn’t passed any sensors and weren’t technically late at all. The computer was none the wiser for obvious reasons.

This can be put down to the old issue that people in their thirties and younger have been using computers for almost all of their lives and understand what a computer is good for and what it isn’t. Youngsters who have lived with computers all their lives understand how a computer works, but for many people older than that computers just work by magic.

The thing is, that divide between young and old is not so clear cut as I used to think. I was listening to iPM yesterday and there was an interview with Clive Sinclair. He pointed out that back in the 1980s computer users really understood computers because they had to in order to get them to work. Today’s youngsters growing up with computers generally don’t understand computers at all.

So we come back to my friend who is the same age as me and has a problem with spyware. I have had a few conversations with him where I have tried to persuade him to use Firefox. For him, the internet is the internet and he doesn’t understand how one browser can be better than another. Even though I have told him about all the superior features and better security that a browser like Firefox or Opera can provide, he persists on using Internet Exploder version bum point poo.

Many people, through ignorance, don’t take the simple measures to keep themselves safe on the internet. I’ve had a look at the stats for this website to see what bad browsers visitors to this site are using.

In the past month, an amazing 20% of visitors used Internet Explorer 6. This is a web browser that was originally released seven years ago and last updated four years ago. It is notorious for its security problems. The more up-to-date Internet Explorer 7 was released almost two years ago.

You would expect Firefox users to be smarter, right? Not always. In the past month, 243 Firefox users that visited this website were using a version of the browser that is considered unsafe (which I defined as and below). This included 19 people using, 11 using 1.0.7 and 8 using Most amazingly, 4 visitors were using Firefox 0.9.1, a browser that has been out of date for four years. I dread to think what kind of security problems these users have been getting themselves in.

It got me wondering. If this many people are using dodgy browsers, how many people are still trying in vain to unsubscribe from spam emails? How many don’t know that even viewing an image in an email alerts a spammer that your email address is active? You could go on.

I don’t mean all this in a preachy kind of way. I completely understand why it is difficult for people to keep up to date with all the security issues that arise. I just find it really frustrating that simple awareness issues are not, well, made aware to people.

Things don’t get much more ubiquitous than the internet. It is impossible to imagine that someone growing up today will not be a regular internet user in some form or another. And there are real dangers on the internet that aren’t to do with [say this like a caveman] “PEDOPHILS” and “CYBER BULLIES”. But the media reports on made-up dangers like “KNIVES” and “YOOFS” and “KNIVES” as though we are on the verge of bladeageddon.

Yesterday I was listening to Digital Planet. They had a chap called Stefan Frei on reporting that around 60% of all internet users are using an out-of-date browser. He had a really smart way of thinking about software security. You should think of software as being perishable, just in the same way as foodstuffs. You wouldn’t eat a mouldy slice of bread, so why would you use a browser with a huge security hole in it?

It’s a really smart analogy that should be spread far and wide. It’s just frustrating that the place I heard it was on Digital Planet, which is probably listened to mainly by people who already know that they should be updating their browsers.


  1. Ah, but you’re out of touch! I can tell, because you forgot this new site called “FACEBOOK” wot the media iz obsessed with, like. It’s where teenagers organise parties to wreck their parent’s mansion, if you’re wondering.

    I approximately a year, I’m going to send out a press release championing a new site I just discovered, called “TWITTER”. It’s where teenagers organise knife crime parties, so it’s a bit underground at the moment.

  2. Wow, thanks for the info. I thought “MYSPACE” was what teenagers used to organise trashing parties. I’d better keep my eye out for this “FACESBOOK”.

  3. IE6 is still installed on a lot of corporate machines , I know the PCs at my local library still use it and also at school.When I asked the admins why they didn’t patch I got the impression they were worried people would not be able to cope with the tabbed interface etc.

    I completely agree with you that it’s staggering the amount of ignorance the general public demonstrate about computers and other technical things.It’s not surprising when you think about it with the amount of preinstallation done on a PC you buy from the shop.People just switch the box on , read an licence agreement and go straight to the desktop rather than have to boot from the operating system CD , format and partition their hard drives , install the hardware drivers so Windows can utilise the hardware to it’s capabilities et al before use.

    When you have these people not encrypting data before burning them to a CD which is to be mailed out it gets rather worrying indeed.That kind of thing should be made illegal quite frankly.

  4. I think it’s a bit generous to say that people read the license agreement. I don’t think I’ve ever read a license agreement in my life… Perhaps I should be more diligent!

  5. My small office was abuzz with tales of woe relating to this DNS problem today. I got the impression that most people hit a brick wall when they called their ISP in a panic; many of which didn’t know what was going on, and were repeating their usual scripted troubleshooting loops ad infinitum.

    At the end of the day, it’s really down to Microsoft, Cisco and Sun to test their patches before they are released – even if they are critical security updates. They should really know better.

    /smug Mac user

  6. Agree with Francois. I would suggest people people who work in an office environment (myself included) do most of their surfing at work, where they have no control over which browser they use.

    Your point about today’s youngster not understanding computers happens with a lot of technologies. As the the technology matures, the designers build better/simpler interfaces that hide the complexity.

    But computer technology is at an intermediate stage, and has not yet reached the level of maturity where security can be handled by the computer itself. But it is getting there.

  7. I saw a cracking quote from Paul Vixie (The guy who wrote BIND, the Berkeley Internet Name Daemon) –

    “Please do the following. First, take the advisory seriously—we’re not just a bunch of n00b alarmists, if we tell you your DNS house is on fire, and we hand you a fire hose, take it.”

    In my professional, and less angry opinion, this is a really fucking serious issue, and I am patching my own DNS server at home.

  8. I’ve found that patching Windows causes a lot more problems than it solves, unless they’ve done the testing associated with a Service Pack. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the one time I tried to download a patch for Windows XP, it crashed the computer and required a re-install just to get it to its pre-updated state.

    I saw the DNS patch story near the top of the Teletext news, but it didn’t get a huge amount of coverage on the programmes themselves. Strange, given the importance of the issue.

  9. I remember when I used to use the family computer. It’s an XP machine and since Service Pack 2 was installed it has never been the same since! 🙁