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Truth About Computer Security Hysteria

As read by the author

What an audacious lowball offer

As read by the author Rob Rosenberger, Vmyths co-founder
Friday, 20 April 2001

ANOTHER ANTIVIRUS VENDOR tried to buy my white hat this morning.

The guy behind the offer tried to entice me with "a day or two of pay," a plane ticket, and a nice hotel suite. What does his firm want from me in return? Simple: they want to know what I haven't yet disclosed regarding The China Syndrome.

Another anti­virus vendor tried to buy my white hat ... and they had the audacity to lowball me!

I'm not making this up and I'm not exaggerating. This antivirus vendor wants me to hang up my 12yr-old white hat and give them everything I dug up on their competitors. "We'll treat you really well," too, with a night on the town at the firm's expense.

Talk about a lowball offer! I'd earn more if I sold my soul on eBay.

I berated the caller for insulting my intelligence. I also thought about publicizing his name as a way of shoving the offer back in his face. You know his competitors would taunt him in voice mails and emails. "Rob's only worth two days' pay and a night on the town, eh? We hear he likes strip clubs and Yukon Jack. Give him a bunch of dollar bills, sit him in front of a pole, put a shot glass in his hand, and he'll blab all night long about everyone's foibles."

But I didn't name the guy in my previous column, so... Congratulations, dude! I won't sell your identity to the highest bidder. Consider it a freebie.

I've received much better sell-out offers over the years. One vendor (now defunct) tried to hire me in the early 1990s. Command Software actively recruited me during my 1997 VIP tour. Network Associates offered $30k in computer hardware just to resurrect my EIS project. Trend Micro offered $100k for an exclusive website sponsorship, and Network Associates later made a similar offer. Symantec offered first-class airfare & hotel accommodations for my 1998 VIP tour. Network Associates offered the same treatment for my 1998 and 2000 VIP tours.

And I turned it all down. Even the airfares. Even the hotels.

When I go on VIP tours, I do it at my expense. I honestly think I've got one of the whitest white hats in the antivirus industry because of it. Paying for these trips out of my own pocket explains why I don't take as many VIP tours as I'd like.

Sell my soul to an antivirus vendor for two days' pay and a night on the town? Hmph. What an audacious lowball offer.

I try to keep my white hat as clean as possible. Yet any good white hat will collect a few stains over time. Mine is no exception.

I DO EXPECT some perks on a VIP tour, though. Can you say "free food"? I have no problem when I literally flush someone else's money down a toilet.

Command Software CEO Dyan Dyer is friends with the owner of a spectacular Italian restaurant. Symantec treated me to a very trendy L.A. café. Aladdin's Chicago office picked up the tab for me at a great Italian spot. Oh, and McAfee bigwig Jimmy Kuo picked up my $4 tab at a Vietnamese lunch counter. (Excellent food.)

I also accept trinkets from antivirus firms. Pens, tote bags, golf shirts, etc. They hand 'em out at trade shows, so I don't mind grabbing stuff when I tour their facilities. Network Associates, Central Command, Finjan, and Symantec have kept me supplied over the years with gifts to hand out when I go on lectures. Those golf shirts make great door prizes, and the fact I give them away reinforces the fact I'm not "anti-industry." (I'm just "anti-unethical.")

Yes, I do ask vendors to give me antivirus software/services at no charge (and with no quid pro quo). Many will oblige my requests, but some do not. Sophos, for example, politely turned me down until about two years ago. MessageLabs mulled it over for six months before agreeing. Symantec used to honor my requests, but last month I drove into town to buy a copy of their latest software. "Gratis" is a privilege — they need to make a living, too, you know. I don't expect vendors to give me anything, and I don't demand an explanation if they turn me down.

I try to keep my white hat as clean as possible. Yet any good white hat will collect a few stains over time. Mine is no exception:

  1. I rejected the early-1990s job offer because it jeopardized my wife's career plans. My white hat didn't factor into the decision.
  2. Command Software's job offer collapsed at the $$$ stage. I should note VP Helmuth Freericks took my white hat into consideration in his bid. (And he pitched more than a few days' pay for it, I can tell you that!)
  3. Command Software picked up my hotel bill during my first VIP tour. I didn't say anything to them. Fallout: I no longer tell antivirus firms where I'll stay.
  4. I asked Network Associates to call a cab at the end of my second VIP tour. They called a limo at their expense. I didn't say anything to them, but I double-tipped the driver just to feel better. Fallout: I now schedule taxis in advance.

Sell my soul to an antivirus vendor for two days' pay and a night on the town? Hmph. What an audacious lowball offer.

Memo to the industry: my Vmyths.com con­tract comes up in 2003. Watch for my soul to appear on eBay!

A GOOD WHITE hat will also suffer the occasional battle between good & evil. For example, I got into a tussle last year with John McAfee. Yes, the father of virus hysteria wanted to advertise here. Pardon me while I brush up on the emails in my "Humor, Bizarre email, John McAfee" folder... Ah, yes.

McAfee started sniffing around Vmyths.com, looking "to be beneficial" to our website. Specifically, he wanted to rub green ink all over my white hat. My patron saints at ScreenSaver.com just about fell over themselves when he said "cha-ching." As I understand it, he actually considered buying up every ad spot on the site. He also talked about sending me on an ironic PR tour.

"Why would our advertising folks listen to McAfee's ideas?" I wondered. Our "paragraph three clause" forbids computer security ads, and I took a deep reduction in salary just to get the clause in my contract...

...Much to my chagrin, I discovered McAfee wanted to advertise his venture capital firm. The "paragraph three clause" didn't hinder his plans, and he salivated over Vmyths.com's demographics. Our readers include both influential high-tech employees and mature Internet users. (Ten percent of respondents in our survey claim to live on their kids' inheritance.) We offer some of the best eyeballs for his advertising needs.

Indeed, our sales guy told me McAfee adored my contract clause when he learned of it. He likes to corrupt white hats because they often turn into the most willing of slaves. A multi-millionaire like him could buy Vmyths.com with petty cash, and he'd own me for three days each month as part of the contract. I began suffering nightmares around this time — I remember one bad dream where McAfee reeled me in like a swordfish.

(Okay, I made up the nightmare stuff, but I did pace the carpet in frustration. A lot. I call McAfee "the father of virus hysteria" for a reason.)

Why no ads, then? I surmise Johnny Boy didn't like the "paragraph one clause" which gives me full editorial control. McAfee knows I'm no fan of his. I laughed when the advertising department told me he dropped the ball. Heaven knows they tried to pitch him the idea of a sponsorship package...

Sell my soul to an antivirus vendor for two days' pay and a night on the town? Hmph. What an audacious lowball offer. They didn't even send me a fruit basket. I swear, McAfee would pay me $9,999.99 just to make me snap my fingers.