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Minding Our Business


December 22, 2009

Not just a once-in-a-millennium thing

At the turn of the millennium, on the brink of the calendars and clocks clicking to the year 2000, I spent the night at the State Department in Washington waiting for something to go wrong with the government’s, the nation’s or the world’s computers. It was a long, dull night.

CNN producer Judd Ginsberg and I were among hundreds that the network had stationed around the globe to see if Y2K, the millennium bug, would wreak havoc on cyber communications. But as the millennium dawned in Melbourne, Singapore, Delhi, Jerusalem, Paris, London and, eventually, Washington, the feared glitch slept in.

Computer clocks rolled from 12-31-99 to 01-01-00. The fear was that the glitch, based on software reading two-digit numbers for the date, would revert back to 1900, rather than 2000, wiping out a century and the relatively short history of computing.

The Clinton administration had hurriedly created a Y2K nerve center in Washington to monitor the impending crisis. By that New Year’s Eve, thanks to a drumbeat of media forewarning, many organizations had spent billions fixing the glitch in their systems. As a result, few systems were stymied. Y2K was mercifully a dud. Judd and I shared a bottle of champagne and went home about the time the millennium was breaking in Honolulu.

Now the Obama administration has created a “cyber-czar” to oversee a White House cybersecurity office and coordinate the government’s policies and efforts to protect military and civilian networks. The digital networks are, the president says, “strategic national asset” and the threat to them real. A recent report indicated that with cheap software, Al-Qaeda or the Taliban can monitor the same signals from a Predator drone as the U.S. military with its billion-dollar technology.

The challenge, compared to Y2K only a decade ago, is difficult to calculate. Y2K was a benign, reparable glitch. Now we are subject to assaults on a critical communications core that range from malicious phishing to financial fraud to cyberterrorism.

If we heed the ever present warnings, we install security software, spam filters and backup drives. Then we grumble that the filter still leaks the scam messages and blocks the memo from the company president.

Sometimes, we are the enemy within. A summer ago, I jumped in a pool to catch a foundering grandchild with—you guessed it—the cell phone in the pocket of my shorts. We lose phones with all the numbers we cannot possibly memorize stored in them. We send e-mail or text messages that we never should have, forgetting that nothing is ever lost in cyberspace. Tiger Woods. Need I say more? Cyber stupidity, not cyber security.

What has really happened in the decade since we watched the clock tick towards Y2K, is that we have become ever more digitally dependent. My iPhone is my phone, but also my pocket computer, watch, camera, radio and, when I choose it to be, my newspaper. Picking only a few of the gazillion apps, it is also my map, flashlight, level and mindless entertainment when stuck in airports.

Our computers are our ersatz television sets, our long distance phones (think Skype), and our free-of-ink-smear newspapers. Also our billboards, photo albums and marketplaces. And thanks for the e-Christmas cards.

These devices are subject to all sorts of technical glitches and nefarious plots. We have every reason to protect our personal and corporate assets, fiscal and intellectual. Protecting the communications industry is an industry in itself.

The media business may be struggling, but the gadgetry, in all its glory, has never been more dazzling.

From a media perspective, we are still seeking viable business models to fund and deliver strong, responsible journalism. We should be as concerned with the undermining of valuable, purposeful information by gratuitous innuendo and irresponsible distortion as we are with the undermining of the security of our communications. Terrorism is a many-headed hydra. It can blow up the station or undermine the message.

Be careful out there. Happy Y2K+10.

|   The Column

Charles Bierbauer

Minding Our Business is a column by Charles Bierbauer, dean of USC's College of Mass Communications and Information Studies and a former CNN and ABC News correspondent.

This column addresses issues faced daily by students, faculty, editors, news directors, public relations experts, and media managers about our professions.

We welcome feedback.

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