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The fear that lies online

By Renay San Miguel
CNN Headline News

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(CNN) -- Excuse me for paraphrasing a perfectly good and inspirational saying from Franklin D. Roosevelt, but the only thing I have to fear... is fear-mongering e-mails from public relations firms representing technology companies.

Like this one:

"According to a recent report by the Council of Foreign Relations, the U.S. is still highly vulnerable to terrorist attacks, especially via vehicle hijacking. Hundreds of thousands of trucks carrying fuel or hazardous materials traverse our nation's highways every day unregulated, unsecured and ripe for hijacking...(Brand X) is one company that has been working to secure America's trucks."

Here's another:

"America's schools, like the rest of the country, are confronted with a deep sense of uncertainty and concern over student well-being in the face of terrorism threats, school shootings and other potential crisis situations...A growing number of school districts and educators across the country have discovered (Brand Y's) wireless telephones as the best way to keep their students and staff safe and sound."

And finally:

"With more kids using the Internet everyday, they face many unknown dangers of the Internet, such as inappropriate Web sites and subjects, Internet scam artists and online predators...(Brand Z) is launching a new parental controls product that helps parents monitor their kids' Internet activities."

Thanks to my e-mail in box, every week is Halloween.

Since 9-11, this has been the tone for many of the e-mails I get from publicity firms hired by tech companies, and from the in-house media relations specialists for those companies. The P.R. specialists have clicked onto something that the media discovered long before the World Trade Center came crashing down:

Fear sells.

With that as a dark, scary backdrop, the question now becomes... can this country be saved by technology?

I have received dozens of e-mails that would have you think so. They pitch me products and services like global positioning systems that can keep track of everything from a company's trucks to your child.

Security companies use threats like Love Letter, Code Red or Klez-e to sell me on selling you their anti-virus products. Companies that provide hidden surveillance systems promise to keep an eye out for terrorists while swearing to look the other way and honor your civil liberties.

As a technology anchor for CNN Headline News, I have to be on the air five times a day providing you with the proverbial "cutting-edge" tech news. I have producers who want cool gadgets and gizmos to show our viewers, and if those products and services also happen to keep you and your family and our society/democratic values/bank accounts safe, then that's even better, because then it becomes highly promotable. That's the way my business works.

I accept that. Like the 1970s TV cartoon character Super Chicken, I knew the job was dangerous when I took it.

But I also have to balance all that with my desire not to become the illegitimate child of Cassandra and P.T. Barnum. And I certainly don't want to have a digital ring placed in my nose by publicly held tech companies.

When it comes to computer security firms, some of them employ very smart and sensible anti-virus specialists, so I will continue to use them to comment on the latest threats to your computer in-box. Computer security is a relatively new field. I can't help it if the experts are working for companies that sell security products. I can only make sure that they don't use the exposure on Headline News or in this column to sell you a $200 anti-virus software kit.

Filmmaker Michael Moore's new documentary on gun culture and violence in society, "Bowling for Columbine," talks about fear and the media's role in promoting it. It's a well-traveled approach, I know, but one that continues to resonate. And in times when war has come to our shores and snipers to our school yards, it can be too easy to lean on technology like some shiny new crutch.

Fear may help sell technology, but like FDR, you don't have to buy the fear itself.

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