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Virus angst, thy name is us
We have met the enemy, Zotob, and suddenly have religion about the virus threat.
August 25, 2005: 1:03 PM EDT

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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - When something bad happens, it's news. When it happens to you, it's really, really Big News.

Tuesday a virus attack hit Corporate America. That was news. But among the victims were CNN and ABC. And so it became Big News. At least to us.

But was this virus attack, attributed to a worm called Zotob and its offspring, that big a deal? It didn't really hit Joe Public, just Jane Corporate. There's been a steady stream of these babies -- Sasser, Code Red, Love Bug. Was this week's attack any more or any less significant other than it happened to a couple of outfits with air time and cameras?

"If it hadn't been us, we wouldn't have had nearly this much coverage," declared one of our more cynical writers at our morning edit meeting.

He's probably right to a certain degree. News organizations do tend to lose some perspective when the story involves themselves. Just ask "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart."

So is this week's coverage a bit of an overreaction?

Well, virus attacks cause damage. Significant damage. Just look at the charts. Between lost productivity and the extra tech work, the estimates range into the billions.

Now, some of those estimates strike me as a little high. After all, there are workarounds. We managed to get our work done here at CNN. The Web site got updated and the shows went on the air, albeit with a little more sweat than usual. Then again, we're not a bank, where the whole transaction depends on the computer.

"For financial institutions relying on the Internet, being down for a number of hours can mount up the costs very quickly," said Mark A. McManus, vice president of technology and research at Computer Economics, a California consulting firm. That's why he thinks when all is said and done the total cost of this Zotob et al episode, which involved banks, networks and a variety of other companies, will be over $500 million.

Yet Corporate America is a little bit better at the virus game these days. Most corporate networks have better protection now than they had five, or even two, years ago. (In fact, there's been a little bit of tut-tutting at the victims of this week's attack, since a patch to prevent Zotob existed a couple of days prior.) Many companies, like many consumers, have automated their Windows update and antivirus functions so that the moment Microsoft has issued a patch, they get the patch.

And recovery times are quicker. Our tech guys had to put in some extra hours, but we were fully up and running within 12 hours of our major problems. And we were never fully down. I don't think that's too bad.

"Sure, companies are better at getting these things resolved quicker," said McManus. "But the costs associated with downtime are higher too." That's because Corporate America is becoming more and more intertwined with the Internet and Intranet, he said, so the hits hurt more when they come.

So monetarily it is a Big Deal. But if you look at the ongoing series of virus attacks, it has been a big deal since the Love Bug.

Are we suddenly overreacting?

Well, a big part of journalism's mission is to give viewers and readers insight into what it's like to be in the midst of a development. Reports from the battlefield, first-person accounts, live shots of a car chase, footage of a riot ... these are all attempts to put the audience into the event -- to give them the perspective of being there. And, if you buy into the somewhat highfalutin concept that journalism educates and informs, then that "being there" perspective helps the audience understand sometimes complicated and emotional issues.

So for our audience Tuesday, they got a taste of the frustration and excitement that occurs when a virus hits a big operation.

If there is a failing here, it's probably that the news media at large hasn't reported on the growing virus problem enough. Suddenly media gets a wake-up call and starts paying attention to an issue.

Unfortunately, we probably won't stick with it ... and at just the wrong time. You see, McManus thinks we can expect these kinds of big attack scenarios to fade off. Hackers are now gravitating to more stealthy attacks, looking for monetary gain more than big splash notoriety, McManus explained. Think bank accounts, credit cards, and ID theft ... less visible attacks, but just as threatening on a fiscal level.

We'll try to pay attention.

______________________________

Allen Wastler is Managing Editor of CNN/Money and appears weekends on CNN's "In the Money." He can be emailed at wastlerswanderings@cnn.com.  Top of page

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