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By Robert MacMillan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Thursday, July 7, 2005; 9:45 AM

I usually take a reality check when a survey tells me that 91 percent of any group does one thing or feels another. But when I hear that 91 percent of Internet users have changed their online habits to avoid spyware, I can believe it.

That's the top finding from a survey conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project in Washington. Among its other notable conclusions: 81 percent of Internet users don't open e-mail attachments without knowing that they are safe; 48 percent stopped visiting suspect Web sites; 25 percent don't use music-swapping networks anymore; and 18 percent have switched Internet browsers.

Wow. It's like everybody took all the online security advice that my colleagues and I ever dished out on washingtonpost.com. If these numbers accurately reflect the sentiments of the U.S. population, people are starting to take more responsibility for their online safety. From there, it wouldn't be exaggerating to imagine we've turned a corner in Internet security.

Pew's survey was based on telephone interviews conducted across the United States with more than 1,300 Internet users. Just to get an idea of whether this sounded right, I called Matt Bishop, a computer security researcher at the University of California, Davis.

"What you're describing to me sounds like a good thing," he said. "People are getting more cautious."

Bishop said we probably can attribute these numbers to several months' worth of stories about identity theft -- and how to prevent it -- seizing the headlines.

I can imagine. As regular readers know, I usually cast my mother in the starring role as the intelligent person who suffers from a persistent case of technophobia. And just like an actor on cue, she sent me an e-mail Tuesday asking me who might have opened an America Online account with her credit card number.

If this happened a year ago, she would have suspected that someone had gone through her purse. This time, she called the technology reporter because she had identity theft on the brain.

The Pew survey covered spyware, not identity theft, but one isn't necessarily independent from the other. Here's a two-word glossary for people still unclear on the different "wares" they keep reading about:

  • Adware: Software programs that report back to advertising companies about the sites that you visit online. They arrive at your computer via free programs such as instant-messaging icons and games that you find online. Ever wonder why you get random pop-up ads when you're not even surfing the Web? Blame adware and the companies whose ads are addling you. Pew notes, by the way, that people often agree to download these programs because they failed to read it in the 9 million pages of fine print that accompany user agreements. If you're downloading software, read the agreement. That's an order .
  • Spyware: Same thing, only worse. Spyware not only reports to its maker what you're doing online, it can deliver your personal data to hackers who then use it for their ends.
  • When I heard about Mom's AOL situation and thought back to her computer's recent erratic behavior, it seemed clear that her laptop might have been transformed into a credit card theft machine.


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    © 2005 The Washington Post Company

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