How to Detect Coronavirus Myths, Scams and Fake News: Security Guru Bruce Schneier Weighs In On COVID-19

The Novel Coronavirus pandemic has scarcely afforded health care authorities with enough time to develop a cohesive testing protocol for millions of Americans. Filling this vacuum, a flood of false and misleading information now threatens to become another alarming side effect of the outbreak.

"We already know that there are disinformation campaigns being run by foreign actors, as well as misinformation being spread from all four corners of the Internet — including from our own president," relates Bruce Schneier, the renowned cybersecurity specialist in an exclusive Seattle24x7 interview.

"We know that hackers are taking advantage of this. There are scams to hack your computer that rely on you clicking on a link that has to do with COVID-19. Every event of this type is "mined" in this way by bad actors and this case is no different.."

What can we do to surface the truth amidst the inevitable misdirection of bad actors?

"At times like this, you have to trust authority," said Schneier. Put another way, " you have to rely on trustworthy individuals for your information. The more we can all do that, the better we can all pull together and get through this crisis." says Schneier.

The author of more than 12 books on security in the digital age, Schneier's blog recently spotlighted two scenarios where foreign governments manipulated health information or posed threats. Writing alongside co-author Margaret Bourdeaux, Schneier traced a troubled roadmap. To cite just two milestones:

"In 2018, Russia undertook an extensive disinformation campaign to amplify the anti-vaccination movement using social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Researchers have confirmed that Russian trolls and bots tweeted anti-vaccination messages at up to 22 times the rate of average users. Exposure to these messages, other researchers found, significantly decreased vaccine uptake, endangering individual lives and public health.

Another study directly relevant to public-health emergencies showed that a critical US biosecurity initiative, the Department of Homeland Security's BioWatch program, had been left vulnerable to cyberattackers for over a decade. This program monitors more than 30 US jurisdictions and allows health officials to rapidly detect a bioweapons attack. Hacking this program could cover up an attack, or fool authorities into believing one has occurred."

Remaining Vigilant About Fake News

The same behaviors that can help Americans protect democracy against the infiltration of misinformation that attempts to divide and polarize us can be used to avoid being misled by health-related myths and scams. Writing for the News Literacy Project, Peter Adams outlined the following steps:

1. Keep an eye on your emotions. Despite what we may think, our relationship to information is more emotional than rational. Purveyors of misinformation know this. They try to trigger strong emotional reactions, such as fear, outrage, and hope, to override our rational defenses. Be aware of your emotions — particularly when you're reacting to a piece of unknown origin or one that isn't backed up by credible evidence.

2. Don't "like" or share an article you haven't read. Yes, we've all done it, but it's not a good idea to share a link if you've read only the headline. When you do, you risk amplifying unreliable and divisive content. No matter how urgent a piece of information may appear, be sure to read it carefully and skeptically before you send it onward; if you don't, you risk your own credibility and may be polluting the feeds of your friends and family members.

3. Be skeptical, not cynical. With so much misinformation circulating, it's tempting to give in to cynicism and confusion — to embrace the belief that the other political party can't be trusted, that nothing you see online is credible, and that there is no sense in paying attention to any of it. But this cynicism plays right into the hands of the propagandists who strive to divide us, and casts a fog over the very notion of truth — because a public that has given up on knowing what is true is one that will accept almost anything. Facts still exist, as do reputable news outlets that are focused on gathering and reporting them. Remember: Credible information doesn't ask for your trust; it earns it by being transparent, fair, and accurate.

If you see something online that's fake, false, or misleading, do something: Share it with fact-checkers and news outlets, warn others with a comment or a reply, post accurate information, and report false content and malicious accounts when they violate platforms' community standards.

Looking for reliable resources? Here are three…

As draconian and old-school as it may seem, quarantine remains one of the most valuable ways to control the outbreak. Fred Hutch/SCCA infectious disease expert Dr. Steve Pergam advises that, above all else, limiting our contact with others now will save lives down the line.

"Many of us can telecommute, for instance, and stay in touch through a wide variety of online apps. We can find books online and television with all kinds of programming plus grocery delivery and restaurant apps, some of which have even started offering "non-contact" food delivery."

Bringing the Diagnosis In-House

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is partnering with the University of Washington to offer home testing kits for the novel coronavirus to people in the Seattle area.

While it's not clear when the program would begin, the proposed program would allow people who suspect they have COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, to get tested without exposing health care workers or others in a doctor's office. People who believe that they have the virus would fill out a detailed questioner online and, if their symptoms were consistent with COVID-19, they would have a test kit delivered to their home within two hours. Results would be available within two days and would be sent directly to local health officials.

The home-testing program will use resources from the Gates-funded Seattle Flu Study, which conducts at-home testing for influenza. Researchers are already testing samples from Flu Study participants for the novel coronavirus — the study design and consent forms allow them to test for a number of respiratory viruses.

In another approach to minimizing health care worker exposure to potential COVID-19 patients, the University of Washington is testing employees in a drive-through clinic that is set up in a parking garage.

Biological vs. Computer Viruses Remain Far Apart

"Computer viruses are really very different than biological viruses," said Schneier.

"We use the same name because of the transmission mechanism. You can model computer virus detection using a lot of the same tools as biological viruses. They both can cause damage. But it quickly diverges in the details. Computer viruses aren't life-threatening in the same way. In the computer world, we don't think about geography in the same way the real world does."

One promising area is the ability to automate testing, which is huge for detection," said Bruce.

"Once you can detect a computer virus, mitigation is trivial. Because computer viruses are so prevalent, because new ones appear all the time, anti-virus companies are constantly pushing out updates which are the analogs to new vaccines. Testing in the computer world takes a day or so. It is not the same in the real world."

In spite of the lack of agility in today's biological sphere, Schneier sees tremendous potential for machine learning and AI to craft individualized therapies that will work better than the mass therapies we have now. Fast-forward ahead ten years and medicine will look a lot different than it does today.

Until that time, we must remain vigilant and put our faith in those who have earned our trust. In cyberspace, keen observers like Bruce Schneier help us stand our guard.

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.