Infosec's mega marketing misalignment mishap

Symantec's embarrassing bucket of bull soils a serious message

Talk about disconnect! Analysts, security engineers and other infosec geeks aim for Swiss-watch precision, because one little mistake means the bad guys win. We want people to take this seriously, right? So why do certain marketing and PR departments spread a load of what my father, a man more polite than me, would have called "bulldust"?

Yeah, I'm lookin' at you, Symantec.

Not just you. We see dodgy cybercrime factoids every week.

But you, Symantec, most certainly win this month's inaugural Big Bit Bucket of Bull Award for the buffalo-grade bovine blather of your 2011 Norton Cybercrime Report. It's not even half-way through the month yet, sure, but by God it'll take some beating.

If the full report, with media-friendly factoids aplenty, is all a bit too tl;dr don't worry. Our news stories gave the flavour. Last year cybercrime claimed 431 million adult victims and cost $US114 billion, apparently. It's in the same league as the global trade in illegal drugs, says Symantec.


The "cybercrime bigger than drug trade" meme has been doing the rounds for years. In 2005 some US Treasury Department consultant made an offhand comment that was picked up by a freelance journalist filing for Reuters and through a process dubbed statistics laundering the made-up numbers became "facts".

This was all debunked by security researcher Richard Stiennon almost two and a half years ago.

But you don't have to go back that far. In June this year two Microsoft researchers, Dinei Florencio and Cormac Herley, produced the report Sex, Lies and Cyber-crime Surveys.

"Far from being broadly-based estimates of losses across the population, the cyber-crime estimates that we have appear to be largely the answers of a handful of people extrapolated to the whole population," they wrote.

"A single individual who claims $50,000 losses, in an N=1000 person survey, is all it takes to generate a $10 billion loss over the population. One unverified claim of $7,500 in phishing losses translates into $1.5 billion."

Sure enough, that's exactly the methodological defibrillator that Symantec used to jump-start this zombie meme.

Just 24 countries were used to represent the world.

Quotes about attitudes came from just four focus groups, two each in the delightfully representative cities of New York and Los Angeles.

Cybercrime apparently includes "malware appeared on my computer" (yeah, but was it detected and defeated?) and "online harassment" (forum trolls?) and "I experienced identity theft" (a tweet posted as a "joke" when a colleague passed your logged-in computer?).

The big fat numbers fuzz over the distinctions between being a victim of crime "in the last 12 months" and "ever".

The value of time lost to cybercrime is calculated... how? Surely not by assuming everyone was on the clock? On whose pay scale?

And cleaning up cybercrime costs $274 billion a year? That's the GDP of the United Arab Emirates, FFS!

At least Symantec has included some information on its methodology for us to rip apart, which is more than most do. Anyone else who does surveys on cybercrime and the like should consider themselves on notice -- especially when it comes to margin of error calculations when you start slicing up the data cubes.

I really want to say "Bayesian probability" at this point too, but it feels like overkill. And it is. You don't have to do any of this stuff to see the buffalo. Just look at the headline figures.

Crime costing $114 billion a year over 431 million victims is an average of $264 each. Does that feel right to you? When the "crimes" can include vast numbers of petty stuff with zero financial impact? You reckon 65 percent of Indian internet users are losing an average of $264 a year each? Every year?

Please insert your own sentence here about mean versus median versus mode.

What's most depressing about all of this is that it presumably cost Symantec a bundle, what with the multi-nation survey and fancy graphics and personal emails to journalists from PR firms.

All that money spent on Ponds Institute grade factoids. On insights like "As smartphones grow we are going to basically have computerised wallets and I would see that as being both a target and means of attack." Credited to "law enforcement officer", that sentence. I'm so glad Symantec managed to track down that guy, otherwise we'd never have known!

We need serious research, real research, into online crime. Perhaps for 2012 Symantec might like to fund some.


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Tags infoseccybercrimemalwaresymantec2011 Norton Cybercrime Report

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