As the news spread yesterday morning that the National Broadband Network had been hacked — allegedly — everybody who actually knows something about data networks and information security was mashing their face into their cornflakes. Repeatedly.

The NBN was not hacked. The NBN couldn’t possibly have been hacked. It was obvious. A few minutes cross-checking by someone with a even half a clue, or asking with such a person, would have confirmed that.

Or, you know, checking with the alleged victim, Platform Networks. It has a phone.

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So why, as my colleague Bernard Keane pointed out yesterday, was the ABC still running with an “NBN attack” headline at lunchtime? Why was the PM story that evening, in which I was a participant, still calling Platform “a company linked to the National Broadband Network”? What was ANC News Radio still calling Platform “an NBN contractor” at 8pm?

Even this morning the ABC can’t let go of the NBN connection, or so I’m reliably told.

I don’t mean to single out the ABC. I just can’t bear looking at any more of these daft stories.

Jesus wept.

Platform Networks is a “white box” internet service provider (ISP). Like a regular retail ISP, it uses a wholesale provider for the “last mile” connection to homes and businesses. The difference is that Platform provides infrastructure and services to virtual service providers (VSPs). The VSP’s customers think their ISP is Jim and Sharon’s Internet, but under the hood it’s all Platform’s gear.

Platform has signed with NBN Co to use its fibre, yes, but it’s not up and running yet. Even if it was, calling a hack of Platform a hack of the NBN is like calling a hack of iiNet or Internode or any of the hundreds of smaller ISPs a hack of Telstra because they use Telstra copper for their ADSL services.

I daresay the excuse that’ll be offered is that all this technical stuff is really, really hard. Bollocks. That excuse doesn’t cut it any more.

The internet has been a part of our lives for a decade and a half. A journalist doesn’t know the difference between wholesale and retail ISPs? That’s like not knowing major roads are constructed by state governments and local streets by local councils. Like not knowing the difference between a bookmaker and the TAB. Or, thank you Huffington Post, between AFL and rugby.

The NBN is — stop me if you’ve heard this before — the biggest infrastructure project in Australia’s history. Senator Stephen Conroy likes to tell us that the structural separation of Telstra is the biggest economic reform since the GST. Certainly it’s a multibillion-dollar issue at the core of the project’s politics.

If you don’t understand the difference between wholesale and retail ISPs, you don’t understand one of the core issues about the entire NBN project. FFS, what have you been doing for the past three years?

Don’t journalists update their knowledge? Maybe they should. Like doctors and accountants and engineers. They’re professionals, right?

But no. Apparently when it comes to anything vaguely technical it’s just fine for mainstream journalists to be ignorant.

“When almost the entire body of AU media gets my specialty this wrong, I doubt their capacity to get other specialties right,” tweeted ISP network engineer Mark Newton. “Why should I trust what they write about medicine? Law? Agriculture? Politics? Economics? Lost dogs?” he  asked.

Quite. It’s why the age of the non-specialist journalist may well be over.

And because journalists are ignorant, politicians get to spout all sorts of blather unchallenged.

“The awful part is Abbott ran with it,” Patrick Gray, producer of the Risky Business podcast on information security, told Crikey. “It’s a great line, designed to be critical, catchy and scary, but it’s complete bullshit. It would be funny if people weren’t actually going to believe him.”

Gray says some  journalists at the Australian Federal Police media conference yesterday seemed to ignore what police were saying and were intent on extracting a sound bite that supported their “NBN a security risk” narrative. Does that frustrate the police? Detective Superintendent Brad Marden, who ran the media conference, thinks not.

“I’m quite happy with the line of questioning to be perfectly honest,” Marden told Gray in an interview for his next episode. “It’s their role to actually try and find out what is happening. As it turns out in this case it wasn’t an angle for them there.”

There’s a good reason for the feds to be happy.

“The AFP will be dining out on this for years,” a former law enforcement chap told me yesterday. “They caught the first hacker of the NBN.”

Yeah whatever.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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