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Invasion of the Data Snatchers

By Cynthia L. Webb
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Monday, October 25, 2004; 9:43 AM

Think your PC is safe? Think again. A new study indicates your home computer is likely bogged down with spyware, viruses and other scourges wrought by hackers and PC pranksters. Ignorance may be bliss for some people, but for computer users, not knowing can be costly and inefficient.

The study, courtesy of America Online Inc. and the nonprofit National Cyber Security Alliance, concludes that most PC users aren't aware that their home computers are infected with "malware." The survey is part of the group's consumer education push, in tandem with its National Cyber Security Awareness Month, to get PC users to become more security-savvy and safe online.

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For the study, researchers conducted in-person interviews and technicians were sent to review the PCs of 329 Internet customers -- comprising 194 broadband users and 135 dial-up users -- in 12 states from Sept. 15 to Oct. 8. While the study did not focus on a large group of PC users, the results still reveal that most Americans are not cybersleuths. The study found that "most computer users think they are safe but lack basic protections against viruses, spyware, hackers and other online threats. In addition, large majorities of home computer users have been infected with viruses and spyware and remain highly vulnerable to future infections. Yet at the same time, most keep sensitive personal and financial information on their computers."

"Extrapolating the percentages in our survey, this indicates that millions of Americans are at risk -- and are already infected -- by viruses, spyware, and adware," said Ken Watson, chairman of the NCSA, in a statement.

Of those surveyed, 77 percent said they thought their computer was very or somewhat safe from threats, with 73 percent saying the same for viruses. Three in five said they feel very or somewhat safe from hackers. At the same time, 67 percent of those surveyed had outdated anti-virus software, with 15 percent lacking any anti-virus software. The study also found that 80 percent of the PC users had spyware or adware on their systems, with most not even knowing the software had been installed. Sixty-seven percent don't have firewall protection, with half of the broadband users surfing the Net firewall-free.

With the findings, USA Today said, "a picture emerges of consumers increasingly using their home PCs for sensitive, online transactions without adequately protecting themselves from cybercrime. 'Most people think they're safe, but they really don't know what's on their computer, and boy, are they vulnerable,' says AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein."

"There really is quite a perception gap," said Daniel Caprio, the Commerce Department's deputy assistant secretary for technology policy, as quoted by the Associated Press. "Clearly there is confusion. We need to do a better job making information and practical tips for home users and small businesses available." The AP reported: "One home user in the government-backed study being released today had more than 1,000 spyware programs running on his sluggish computer when researchers examined it. Bill Mines of South Riding, Va., did not fare much better. His family's 3-year-old Dell computer was found infected with viruses and more than 600 pieces of spyware surreptitiously monitoring his online activities. ... Spurred by the high costs of support calls from irritated customers — and fearful that frustrated consumers will stop buying new products — Internet providers, software companies and computer-makers are making efforts to increase awareness of threats and provide customers with new tools to protect themselves. Still, many computer users appear remarkably unprepared for the dangers they face."

The AP noted that all of the participants in the study were AOL subscribers selected by an independent market research firm. "The alliance, a nonprofit group, is backed by the Homeland Security Department and the Federal Trade Commission, plus leading technology companies, including Cisco Systems, Microsoft, eBay and Dell."
USA Today: Home PCs Not as Protected as Owners Think
Associated Press via washingtonpost.com: Security for Internet Users Deemed Weak (Registration required)

CNET's News.com reported more on the study's findings: "Nearly three in five users do not know the difference between a firewall and antivirus software. Desktop firewall software regulates which applications on a PC can communicate across the network, while antivirus software detects malicious code that attempts to run on a computer, typically by pattern matching." CNET picked up on a canned remark from Caprio: "'This study highlights just how important it is for individual Americans to take their cybersecurity seriously, not just as a matter of personal safety, but as a matter of our country's security as well.' The comments underscores [sic] the Bush administration's position -- as outlined in the National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace -- that the nation's cybersecurity by necessity has to rely on every computer owner to secure their own system. Yet, the study highlights the fact that most home users do not understand the risks involved in connecting their computer to the Internet nor how to secure their systems."
CNET's News.com: Plague Carriers: Most Users Unaware of PC Infections

USA Today noted, "Debate continues over who is responsible for securing the Internet. Tech suppliers say they are doing all they can and consumers need to do more. Critics say tech suppliers should work harder to stem the flow of malicious traffic at major Internet gateways. 'This survey reinforces the truth that nagging consumers to add firewalls and anti-virus tools, and to implement difficult updating processes, is a failed strategy,' says Alan Paller, research director at the SANS Institute, an Internet security training center."

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