Security Expert: NBC Deceptively Edited Story to Make Sochi Hacking Threat More Sensational

A cyber security expert featured on the February 4 NBC Nightly News is alleging that producers edited the story in such a way as to sensationalize the threat that tourists at the Olympic Games in Sochi face from hackers.

Hadas Gold of Politico has the story in a piece at the paper's On Media blog:


The cybersecurity expert who appeared in a popular NBC segment on Russian hacking says that the network overstated visitors' vulnerability to hackers.

"Incorrect impressions may have been formed" due to the editing process, Kyle Wilhoit, the cybersecurity expert who appears in the segment with NBC's Richard Engel, wrote in a blog post on Friday.

In the segment, which aired Tuesday, Engel and Wilhoit set up new computers and phones with fake accounts made to look like Engel's legitimate equipment in Moscow. After setting up their computers at a hotel, they go to a cafe where within minutes, the smartphone was hacked as they were browsing information about the Sochi Olympics. 

"Almost immediately we were hacked," Engel said. "Malicious software hijacked our phone before we even finished our coffee. Stealing my information, and giving hackers the option to tap and record my phone calls."

The introduction to the piece makes it seem even more dire: "As tourists and families of athletes arrive in Sochi, if they haven't been warned and if they fire up their phones at baggage claim, it's probably too late to save the integrity of their electronics and everything inside them. Visitors to Russia can expect to be hacked," NBC's Brian Williams said in the introduction to the piece.

But the piece left out some crucial elements, making it seem much worse than was the case, Wilhoit explained in his blog post:

First, all the attacks required some kind of user interaction. Whether to execute “applications” or to open a Microsoft Word document, all the attacks shown required user interaction in order to compromise the device.

Second, these attacks could happen anywhere. They would not just happen in Moscow, nor did it require us to be in Moscow. Whether those attacks occur while you are sitting in a coffee shop in Berlin, or your home in Tokyo, these types of attacks can and do occur, on a worldwide scale.

Wilhoit also said that if basic security measures had been taken -- like updating operating systems, installing anti-virus software and not opening or downloading sketchy emails and websites, --most of the hacking could have been avoided. NBC News did a follow up online video explaining some of this, but it was not included in the broadcast segment. 

It's right for NBC -- which is broadcasting the Olympic Games -- to cover the very real threat of computer and cell-phone hacking for tourists abroad, particularly those enjoying the Winter Games in Sochi. But to needlessly sensationalize and simplify a story for the sake of the television audience is insulting the the viewer and unbecoming of a professional media enterprise.

Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd is the Managing Editor for NewsBusters