Online Safety: Users Talk the Talk, Don’t Walk the Walk

When it comes to online security, perception is definitely not reality. According to a joint AOL/National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA) Online Safety Study, users believe themselves to be “safe” in general. Their computers indicate otherwise.

The survey found 77 percent of users believe their home computers are either very safe (28 percent) or somewhat safe (49 percent) from online threats. When pollsters asked how safe users feel they are against viruses, the combined percentage dropped to 73 percent. When asked about safety from hackers, the numbers drop further still, to only 60 percent.

The majority of participants (63 percent) said they’ve had a computer virus, and 85 percent had an anti-virus program installed on their PC. Yet detailed scanning of their computers revealed 67 percent either hadn’t updated their virus protection in the past week, or had no anti-virus protection at all.

Security Perceptions
And Risks – Viruses
Do you currently have anti-virus software
on your computer? (from survey)
Yes 6%
No 44%
Don’t Know 50%
Does the respondent currently have some
type of anti-virus software on their computer?
(from scan)
Yes (all users) 19%
No (all users) 81%
Yes (dial-up users) 25%
No (dial-up users) 75%
Yes (broadband users) 15%
No (broadband users) 85%
Of the users with self-protection, how often
do you generally update your anti-virus or
virus scanning software? (base: 276)
(from survey)
Weekly/daily (incl. automatically) 71%
Monthly 12%
Yearly 5%
Never 12%
When was the anti-virus or virus
scanning software on the respondent’s
computer last updated? (from scan)
Within past week 33%
Within past month 34%
Within past six months 6%
Longer than six months 12%
No virus protection on computer 15%
Source: AOL/NCSA Online Safety Study, Oct 2004

The same perception gap was found when it comes to spyware. An overwhelming majority, 91 percent, of respondents had heard of spyware. As it turned out, 80 percent actually had some form of spy- or adware on their computers.

When queried about firewalls, 63 percent of respondents indicated they believed they had a firewall in place. Detailed scanning found only 33 percent actually had a firewall running on their PC.

“We did expect that perception wouldn’t equal reality, but not to this degree,” Ken Watson, chairman of the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA) told ClickZ. “When you compare the fact that three-quarters of people think that they are safe, and only two-thirds of them don’t have anti-virus software, that’s pretty surprising.”

The inherent dangers of these gaps were also highlighted by the survey’s results. Users are victimized by spy- and adware in a number of ways, including browser hijacks; home pages changed without permission (43 percent); and redirected search results (40 percent).

With so many apparent security issues prevalent on PC’s, the AOL/NCSA survey further reveals most users either keep sensitive information (84 percent) or transact sensitive information online (72 percent), such as financial or health records.

While these finding may indeed indicate prevailing trends, the study involved only 329 “typical dial-up and broadband computer users.” As such, the results should be taken with a grain of salt. The survey was almost evenly split between men (48 percent) and women (52 percent). A greater percentage of broadband users (59 percent) than dial-up subscribers (41 percent) participated in the study.

“When the car came along, extra speeds created more danger than people were used to, and now we’ve learned to look both ways before we cross the street,” NCSA’s Watson said. “I’d like to see consumers adopt that same kind of safe behavior online.”

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