• United States

What TV needs: The Security Show

Apr 08, 20044 mins

* Why TV might be the right vehicle for information security messages

The Department of Homeland Security’s National Cyber Security Division is committed to increasing public awareness of information security issues and basic computer hygiene – practices such as installing firewalls on personal computers, never opening unexpected attachments to e-mail, not buying anything from junk e-mailers and so on.

Not once in any of the discussions I have heard about reaching ordinary, non-technical people have I ever heard anyone suggest that the single most effective medium for spreading the word is television.

Now don’t get me wrong: I detest commercial television and have not had it in my home since 1976. I watch DVDs on a TV that receives no broadcast at all because we’re so far out in rural Vermont that you need a satellite dish – and I rejected TV service on the StarBand satellite dish that provides my Internet access.

But whether we like it or not, TV is part of life for most people in the U.S. According to the Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting (CIPB), the average U.S. family had the TV on for about seven hours a day in 2003.

The average kid in the U.S.:

* Spends over 1,000 hours a year watching TV, and 900 hours in school.

* Sees 20,000 ads on TV a year.

* Watches an average of 8,000 murders by the end of elementary school.

* Observes over 40,000 murders by the age of 18.

Maybe if security awareness were as pervasive as murder on TV we might get somewhere; after all, the U.S. has one of the highest murder rates in the world per capita (eighth highest with firearms and 23rd overall). 

It may not be economically feasible for government agencies to sponsor entire TV series or even individual shows aimed at the full spectrum of watchers; producing shows can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 an episode depending on the cast, location and special effects.

However, in these commercial TV programs, providers of products and services often buy visibility for their stuff using “product placement.” For a fraction of the cost of overt advertising, companies can buy a spot in the limelight for their brand. You must have noticed all the shots of people ostentatiously picking up a can of some brightly-colored soda pop for no apparent reason in TV shows and movies – or the frequency with which FedEx or UPS delivery persons show up at some opportune moment in the full glory of their resplendent, never-before-worn uniforms. These brand displays are not accidents: they bring money to the producers and visibility to the product placers.

So why not spend some of the public awareness money by paying for a different kind of product placement? Instead of helping to make us obese by featuring fatty, sugary foods 12 times an hour or ensuring continued oil consumption by glorifying fatty, obese SUVs from every possible camera angle, why not pay for such inoffensive additions as having an attractive character (everyone is attractive in the alternative universe of TV land) mention in passing that they’ve just been hit by a virus / worm / junk e-mail / pornographic pop-up / threatening instant message / remote-administration Trojan? Then an equally attractive character can earnestly and briefly mention some elementary aspect of computer security. “Oh,” says some teen icon, “you have to install a personal firewall on your PC to keep people out of your computer.” Or more realistically, “Yeah, well, dude, it’s like you have to, like, keep your, like, anti-virus signatures, y’know, like, up to date, like. y’know?”

If funds are available, we could even see entire episodes focusing on computer security as a theme. Just imagine a show with, say, a teenaged witch who runs a flying saucer factory (Listen, what do I know about TV? I remember hearing about a flying nun and thinking it was just a joke.) and has her production line hacked into by devils. So she gets this really cool transdimensional guy with purple stripes on his nose and a tentacle growing out of the back of his head to improve security on her systems. And then…

Hmm, I think I should stick to my day job.