View the KOLD hacker e-mail report (You will need a RealVideo player).

"This is not as thorough as we probably could have been."
KOLD news director Carolyn Kane, on the hacker e-mail story

Ground Zero archive

Hacking the boob tube

By Joe Salkowski
StarNet Dispatches
Tue May 18 00:23:01 1999

Head for the hills, everyone: A "hacker group" is conspiring to "create problems in your personal life."

At least, that's the word from the crack investigative reporters at KOLD, Channel 13, Tucson's CBS television affiliate. The station that patrols Tucson's skies in its very own rent-to-own helicopter led its 10 p.m. "news"-cast last Wednesday with a threatening Internet story that apparently escaped the attention of lesser, ground-hugging journalists.

"They say they have your personal information, including credit card numbers and Social Security numbers," anchor Kris Pickel warned in her most ominous tone. "And unless you do as they say, they're going to use it against you."

Co-anchor Randy Garsee went on to explain that a "hacker group" was sending out e-mail messages threatening to divulge personal information from recipients' America Online accounts unless they forwarded the message to 10 AOL users within 45 minutes. The report, accompanied by a grammatically challenged "You Got Mail" graphic, was delivered with the breathless rush of a Lewinsky-level scoop.

"Does AOL know about this?" Garsee asked reporter Valerie Cavazos. "Well," she responded with barely suppressed glee, "they do now."

Indeed. They know, like most Net users should, that KOLD fell hard for one of the oldest, lamest tricks on the Net.

The menacing message that consumed three minutes of supposedly precious airtime was nothing more than a chain letter - the sort that promises ten years of bad luck will befall those who don't send it along. No "hacker group" or anyone else could carry out the threats contained in the message, and nobody who knew anything about the Net would pass it along.

But KOLD didn't think twice - or even once - before passing the threats along to a few thousand viewers.

"This is not as thorough as we probably could have been," KOLD News Director Carolyn Kane conceded the next day. "Our follow up will say that the only way to get yourself in trouble is to fall for this letter."

The story began when Chris Lamb, a 40-year-old warehouse manager for a local pet supply company, phoned KOLD Wednesday to ask about the e-mail message he'd just received from a friend. "I called just to see if they had heard anything about it," he said. "I didn't realize what would happen then."

Lamb, who admits he's "not the most computer-literate person," said he wasn't sure the message was authentic. "That's kind of what I mentioned to Channel 13," he said. "But they said they wanted to do the story."

AOL's main office in Virginia was closed by the time Cavazos got the story, Kane said. So the reporter talked to someone at AOL's local telephone support center who didn't know anything about the message or its claims. Instead of waiting until the next day for an intelligent response from AOL, Cavazos and her editors decided to air her story that night.

"AOL says that this is the first time that they've heard about it and are now frantically trying to figure out if this was a prank or if the hacker group did indeed figure out a way to get into sensitive AOL files," Cavazos reported. She used the word "frantically" again later in her report, suggesting she had a telepathic grasp of happenings inside AOL's headquarters - which were, you'll remember, closed for the night.

Cavazos offered some details from the letter, including its threat that recipients' AOL account would be "messed around with." She also hinted that a "hacker group" could indeed have "cracked" the password to AOL's secret files, a point she illustrated by displaying a Web site with black-market copies of consumer software programs.

Had she instead displayed a clown painting on black velvet, it would have been equally relevant. The fact that consumer software can be "cracked" doesn't prove that a "hacker group" could access the entirety of AOL's account information by figuring out a single password, as the message claimed could be done.

That feat is, in fact, impossible, AOL spokesman Rich D'Amato told me the next day. While he wouldn't divulge how AOL secures that data, he said it wasn't sitting behind a single password on a public Web server. "That's a safe assumption," he said.

"If someone says they have all your personal information, you should react to that the same way you would in real life," D'Amato said. "Take a moment think about it. Don't knee-jerk react to it."

But there wasn't much thinking going on at KOLD last Wednesday. In fact, it didn't even bother Cavazos that Lamb, the lone on-camera source of her story, isn't an AOL subscriber - meaning he couldn't possibly have been affected by the threats.

Viewers learned this only when Garsee asked Cavazos after her report if Lamb obeyed the commands in the message and what happened if he didn't. "He doesn't know that. Nothing has happened so far. Um, he actually was not an AOL user," she stammered. "So it hasn't affected his AOL program."

So let's get this straight: KOLD led its newscast with a story about a "hacker group" that doesn't exist sending threats that couldn't possibly be carried out to a person who couldn't have been harmed - all after an announcer promised that "For accurate, concise reporting, watch News 13." (For television news reporters who might be reading this story, I'll explain that this qualifies as irony.)

When I called Kane, the news director, she began our conversation by defending the story. "We were just saying this is a letter that people had gotten. Valerie did it from that point of view," she said.

Later, though, she conceded that her station should have held off on the story. "We really should have had whatever AOL says it was," she said. "That's why I'm insisting we make sure we follow this up."

The next night, KOLD's 10 p.m. news included a 30-second segment informing viewers that the message was a hoax. But just to be safe, the anchor advised, don't open e-mail sent from people you don't know.

Say what?

Oh, never mind.

If you ever wonder why ordinary, TV-watchin' folk are so afraid of what they might find on the Internet, this comedy of errors should explain things quite nicely. While many reporters have wised up to the realities of the Net, the talking heads of local television news must have been busy fixing their makeup.

Since most local television news reporters are assigned to cover a wide variety of subjects, they aren't likely to become experts in any one of them. But it shouldn't be too much to ask that they apply a little common sense and basic reporting skills before airing stories that ultimately mislead and confuse their unfortunate audience.

Kane told me her news team would have more Internet related stories in the near future, but I'm not sure I can bear to watch. Before they do another story about the Net, they really ought to dip into their helicopter budget and purchase a clue.


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