As I watched the HeartBleed issue unfold over the past couple of weeks, I kept looking around at all of the media reports that seemed to indicate that the end of the world (or at least the internet) was upon us. I kept feeling like I was supposed to be panicking.
But I didn’t.
And neither the world nor the internet came to an end.
It’s not in my nature to panic. That’s just the kinda guy that I am. While I think panic is occasionally called for, it does more harm than good more often than not.
Heartbleed is serious, but…
Heartbleeed is a serious bug, don’t get me wrong. The potential for havoc was exceptionally high. In fact, I’ll even go so far as to say that we dodged a bullet.
But dodge it, we did.
Server administrators had reasons to be deeply concerned – perhaps even verging on panic. Their systems were vulnerable and the moment the news broke, it was their systems that needed to be fixed ASAP.
As the owner of a server that runs OpenSSL, I did due diligence to ensure that the servers under my control were not affected. It wasn’t panic by any means, but more of a simple “better look at this right away” kind of prioritization.
For everyone else, absolutely everything was out of your control. Aside from caution when moving forward after the bug had been publicized, there was absolutely nothing you could do. If there was damage, it had likely already been done.
Most importantly, it appears that there wasn’t a lot of damage done. Servers were getting fixed quickly, and life moved on.
Panic and sensationalism feed the press
And I use the term “press” very loosely here. You could find proclamations on Heartbleed everywhere from individual blogs to major news media outlets.
And it all comes back to clicks.
When the story is really sensational, more people will click through to read it and the more eyeballs that page gets to offer up to the advertisers that sponsor it. As a result, there’s a very strong incentive to make that headline as sensational as possible – sometimes to the extreme.
It’s called “click bait” and nothing generates clicks like feigned end-of-the-world panic.
The result is that an exceptional amount of news reporting on just about any story needs to be viewed very, very skeptically. There are absolutely good, trustworthy sources out there. It’s just difficult to pick them out from all the noise.
Panic and sensationalism lead to bad decisions
When it comes to technology, and in particular personal computing and the internet, two themes consistently appear:
- Panic leads to a sense of extreme urgency.
- Extreme urgency leads to bad decisions and actions.
I don’t have Heartbleed-related examples of this, fortunately. However, I have seen people make some very bad decisions – like unnecessarily reformatting computers, closing online accounts, and even stepping away from online activities completely in a panicked and often ineffective response to some seemingly imminent threat.
Yes, there can be imminent and dangerous threats. But I have yet to see one that is so serious that you couldn’t take some time to calmly, and rationally, consider the ramifications.
Even with Heartbleed.
Settled dust yields a clearer picture
My advice? Be aware, but be skeptical.
Realize that many news and other information delivery vehicles have an incentive to make things seem worse than they may really be. Or perhaps to overstate the risk in one area based on the very real risk in another.
I’m not saying that every source of Heartbleed news did this or that every bit of Heartbleed news was overstated. But a lot of it sure felt like it was.
And I see that often with other news around the internet.
It’s unfortunate, because after the press has cried wolf, we’re more likely to pass over a true attention-worthy story when one comes up.
When you see a story that seems serious and you’re wondering how it affects you – and Heartbleed is a fine example – pause. Take a breath. Wait until the dust settles or check in with your less panic-stricken and knowledgeable friends.
You may need to take action, but as with anything, you’ll probably need to take the right action.
And reactions made out of panic are rarely right.