If you ever want a good insight into what is scaring the bejeezus out of people, all you need to do is check in with the local pharmacist and see what's selling.
Last month it was iodine tablets as people around the Pacific Rim looked for a way to protect their bodies against fallout from a nuclear meltdown in Japan. In 2008 it was the tamiflu vaccine as the world wigged out over swine flu. Before that it was SARS. I'm willing to bet that people have been willing to trade hard earned cash for anything they thought would protect them since the first ape dropped dead of a head cold. Or hard-earned bananas. Whatever. The point is, nothing gets people to spend cash like fear.
This also applies to cybercrime. Over the last couple of years, media stories about your personal identity being stolen have moved off the tech pages and onto the front page. Now, I've written a couple times about digital security companies rushing in to make a buck off this growing fear — and yes, they are still at it. I had two calls last week from companies looking to talk to me about their latest software — but now things are taking a new twist. On Thursday, Facebook admitted to hiring a PR company to run a smear campaign aimed at discrediting Google about how it handles personal data. You can almost hear Mark Zuckerberg in the background yelling, "They've got cooties. Don't touch them." I'm paraphrasing, of course.
Three words come to mind: Pot. Kettle. Black.
Over the last couple of years, there has been no company that I've trusted less with my personal data than Facebook. Facebook applications have posted updates when I asked them not to. Configuring security options was a major headache. Pictures? Don't even get me started. Most of the photos of me on Facebook were uploaded without my permission. The only saving grace here is that Facebook really doesn't have any sensitive information about me to begin with.
Google, however, knows where the skeletons are buried. If you haven't visited your search history on Google, go give it a look. Then image that information in the hands of your mother. Or your boss. Or the media. If you think you're a Superman or Superwoman online, then that Google search history is your kryptonite. The difference between Facebook and Google's is that Google at least gives you the options of turning its tracking information off. If you have any sense of self preservation, do that now.
However, both Facebook and Google are working to build up security. What neither need is a smear campaign.
The real problem here is that Facebook hired a public relations firm to do its dirty work. For those of you who don't have the pleasure of dealing with PRs, most are soulless drones who would sell their own mothers to keep a client happy, but the willingness of Burston-Marsteller to take on this job is a new low. At least one respectable PR (they do exist) I know in Dubai was left shaking his head over why the company would have willingly got involved in this. Publicity like this makes people distrustful of everyone involved and having people panic about their personal information will just result in an exodus of users.
The real problem here is that no one is stepping up and telling everyone to calm down. So here it goes:
Facebook is generally safe, provided you don't post your personal information online. Google is generally safe, again, provided you don't post your personal information online. Security software is good to have, but don't panic, not every cybercriminal is looking to get you specifically, Yossarian. Be smart, keep your cool, and you'll — probably — make it through the year of the cyberscare.