Wednesday, February 09, 2005

New Scientist Suckered by "News to Me" Syndrome

One of the most fatal traps for the journalist to fall into is "news to me": where someone considers a story as newsworthy because they hadn't heard of it before.

It's a particular vulnerability of anyone writing about technology, because tech journalists come to the story expecting it to be new. The very first thing the new IT journalist needs to learn is that most of it isn't news; it's just that they haven't seen that particular slideshow before.

Most of all, though, you get "news to me" syndrome when people outside, or on the periphery, of IT dip a toe into a story that sounds interesting, or listens to a phone call from someone, and they lack the background to nip the "news to me" syndrome in the bud.

It gets really sad - tragic and inept - when "news to me" bites a credible source, only to result in other news outlets recycling old news because one news outlet did so.

Here's the "news to me" syndrome in spades from no less a source than New Scientist: which the author hasn't heard of Zombies before (that is, virus-hijacked home computers being turned into spam sources), so he writes it up as "news" because some self-publicist (in this case Spamhaus) says it's news.

It's a story at least a year old, as this source from CNN clearly demonstrates:
"Your computer could be a 'spam zombie'
NEW YORK (AP) -- Next time you're looking for a culprit for all that junk mail flooding your inbox, have a glance in the mirror.
Spammers are increasingly exploiting home computers with high-speed Internet connections into which they've cleverly burrowed."

(Published in 2004; link at

But, of course, New Scientist is a credible source, so if NS gets suckered by the "news to me" syndrome, all judgement from all sources goes out the window. Hence this CNet News piece:
"Zombie trick expected to send spam sky-high
Published: February 2, 2005, 11:25 AM PST
By Dan Ilett and Jim Hu
Special to CNET
Spam levels are about to skyrocket, according to experts who warned this week that spammers have developed a new way of delivering their wares."

What's really sad about this is that CNet already knew about zombies, at least a year ago. So it's been double-whammied: not only did it not notice that the "news" story from New Scientist wasn't news, it didn't even notice that it had already been running stories about zombies.

The supposed news was that zombies are learning to spoof the address of the mail server at the ISP, rather than using the mail address of the home machine as the "from" address for spam.

Nonsense; this isn't news.

Spoofing isn't new; choosing the address you spoof isn't new. Nor is the discovery of a mail route any particular rocket science. Nor does it need any esoterica about getting the virus to "send a network query to the ISP to discover the address of its mail server".

Here's the easy way to discover the mail route between the spammer and the zombie:
1) infect target computer;
2) the first message the target computer sends is back to its source;
3) analyse the return message to retrieve the ISP's mail address.
Step (3) could easily be automated.

So: have we a new development? Not particularly. Have we news? No. It's just that New Scientist, which is not an IT magazine and never will be (it's a great science title, I love it, but it's not an IT rag) didn't have the onsite skills to tell the difference between "news" and "news to me".

It would be easy to criticise Spamhaus for deceiving New Scientist, but that's a bore. Spamhaus was merely playing a PR game; one of the many tasks of the journalist is to pin the balloon. If you can't, you aren't in the game.

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