War of the Worlds, fought in Zeros and Ones

Cyber War is a hot topic once again. It has been covered by the BBC (“Silent War’), and even by TR (Russia Today) which cites Edward Snowden, and Defon. Also CNN, has covered it –scary CNN style!– about attacks on individuals via social media.

Last month, I was asked to cover this topic for an upcoming special feature in LMD Magazine. I found out some disturbing activities, and reality-checks that the public doesn’t seem concerned about. After all, we are busy worrying about how corporations’ databases are being attacked, and personal information stolen, because that’s what the popular news networks latch onto.

“But make no mistake: America is under attack by digital bombs,” noted Senator Michael McCaul last year when calling for cybersecurity legislation.

In his book “@War: The rise of the military-internet complex.” Shane Harris gives us one example of how governments fight a War of the Worlds scenario. The Chinese have been hacking sensitive US databases for some time, but in one such attack, the government initially withheld this information. Possibly so as not to tip-off the Chinese hackers, he says.

This was a de-facto military assault on a military target. And the target? The design plans for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet in 2007, the so-called ‘fighter to end all fighters,’ that had a price tag of $400 million. It’s well reported today that more than 100 of the world’s militaries indulge in some sort of cyber war tactics. For more on this see Peter Singer’s excellent article in Popular Science.

For this article I interviewed Cornel Ruston, a Sri Lankan-born, California-based network security consultant, who talks about how why all organizations, not just government agencies need to protect their ‘crown jewels’.

The problem is, despite all the fancy communication technologies in our arsenal, we have become sluggish, in the way we communicate with all those who might help thwart cyber war-styled attacks. We tend to put more emphasis on the locks instead. But for every lock, there are a hundred lock-pickers.

If you like a sneak preview of the article, it will be released on Feb 26th.

Vote For iReporter, Gerard Braud

I’ve met Gerard Braud, when I sat in a workshop he conducted some years back. He’s a reporter’s reporter, who knows the ins and outs of working ina  newsroom.

Gerard has been nominated for a CNN iReport award, and I highly recommend him. If you feel inclined, watch this video of his short, succing iReport on Hurricane Isaac. Then, please take a few seconds to cast a vote for him.

Hurricane Isaac iReport – Gerard Braud

Social media’s role in crisis, a learning curve

Given that social media are always on, how should you exploit it for a breaking event?

If you’re in an incident command center, then you have powerful channel –more ears to the ground, more lenses, more raw “intelligence.”

If you’re a news organization, you have a potentially dangerous weapon. Meaning, you could easily abuse it and have hell to pay. CNN’s iReporters are citizen journalists, rated by visitors and viewers to the iReport site. How? “It’s all in the math,” they say. The rating system assigns  Superstar status to those with more reports.

I’ve heard a lot recently about how social media played a important part in Mumbai attacks, in communicating and updating ongoing messages of distress, mainstream reporting and even some forms of citizen journalism. Often, we could not believe what we were seeing and reading about.

But we cheerleaders of new media tools need to be careful and also admit to the potential downsides of such raw, real-time communication.

On that note, it is heartening to see that the BBC is also admitting to some of the risks it should not have taken, such as being careless about fact checking: “simply monitoring, selecting and passing on the information we are getting as quickly as we can.” In other words, just because we do have access to more eyes and years and thumb typers, doesn’t mean we should compromise on what the media does best –act as a filter, and put things in context.

Takeaways:

1. Adaptation: The use of the microblogging format as a news medium is still a work in progress. As someone commenting on this story said, the Beeb should adapt its journalism to the new tools “instead of dropping Twitter with burnt fingers.”

If we look back at how television blundered and blundered when covering major events in its early days, (look how they still do even now!) social media channels like Twitter have a long ways to go.

2. Naivete. Just because technology is used ro do bad things doesn’t mean it should be off limits. There’s anxiety that Google Earth is dangerous because one of the Mumbai terrorists used it in the plot. As one person commented, “Did they use any sort of shoes or boots? What about rope? Let’s ban everything….” !

3. Collaboration. Twitter and Flickr played a big part in providing rich information. But it did not prove that new media was better than old media. As Gaurav Mishra notes, “Twitter, and new media and mainstream media complemented each other in covering this story.”

Media skepticism much needed

Jeff Jarvis isn’t simply being a cheerleader of citizen journalism because of the new media edge (and hip factor) it lends to a profession being slashed (by bean-counters) and burned (by the digital-rules crowd.) More than two years ago, he redefined it as ‘networked journalism’ which removed the dichotomy between Pros and Ams. But how to deal with the credibility factor, or lack thereof?

Responding to how another recent Apple rumor (remember the first one?) piped through an unverified iReport portal on CNN, was being framed as the downside of citizen journalism, Jarvis used this as a ‘teaching moment’ to remind us of the need for media skepticism.

“Mistakes – let alone rumors and lies – go out live and the public has to learn to judge the news more skeptically. The truth is, they always have. But now rather than ignoring their skepticism, we need to encourage it and educate people to think this way. Call it media literacy.”

Truth is, most people expect the media to be fact-checked and error free. They don’t buy into the definition that the media is ‘the first rough draft of history’ and all that.

People often complain about the typos and non-adherence to the style-guide, but don’t always howl about the skewered facts. I find the absence of ‘absolute truth’ across the board, in The Economist and NPR, Drudge and talk radio. That’s the bargain I make when I subscribe to them.

At best the journalists (professional, amateur, networked or otherwise) can only give you one version of the truth. They may be our filters, but we need to also install our own.