Report Focuses on How Spyware Impacts Internet Users

Several years ago, two of our work-study students discovered file-sharing. This was in the early days, before most people even understood the concept, and when hard drives were teeny-tiny compared to now. I was nominally the desktop support staffer, but it was a small part of my responsibilities and any time I had to stop those other responsibilities to puzzle out a problem it had a negative impact on my work.

It was hard for me to get angry at Lisa and Laura, they were always so bubbly and cute and energetic. Even though they were unrelated they were in tune like twins and had a great time working together. Such a great time, though, that others in the office were sometimes annoyed by how much fun they had at work. When it was discovered that they had completely filled up every bit of their machine’s hard drives with illegally downloaded music files, to the point they no longer worked, it created something of an office angst situation.

Luckily, although it was very difficult to do, I was able to clean their drives off and persuade them to no longer download tunes. I sure do empathize with the folks on campus who have to support incoming freshmen, though, because as much of a difficult time Laura and Lisa gave me with their tune downloads, at least that was before adware and spyware.

If you want some insight into users knowledge and behavior about spyware and software, read the new report, Spyware: The Threat of unwanted software programs is changing the way people use the internet. It tries to answer these questions:

Do average internet users understand the basic concepts? (Of adware and spyware) How many are dealing with the problems commonly associated with unwanted software programs? And are they taking steps to prevent software intrusions?

A great set of questions was developed: Actually, you may find those questions useful on your campus and they are available for download (PDF). Then interviews were conducted with 1,336 internet users from May 4 until June 7, earlier this year. The report d'es an excellent job of summarizing what was discovered.

Amazingly, to me, nearly 50 percent of users claim to read user agreements, privacy statements, or other disclaimers. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t read those darned things, even though my job means that I write them. I think the Pew folks agree with me that those respondents are maybe not being real truthful because they did label that section “Current ‘notice and choice’ practices are unsatisfactory to most internet users.”

And they also, in that section, related the tale of a site which tested whether or not users read those agreements in a very clever way: It put a clause in the user agreement for a specific piece of software that promised $1,000 to the first user who wrote in and asked for the money. More than 3,000 users went through before one finally read it and asked for their payment.

Users were also asked if they had spyware or adware on their computers, after being read descriptions of those programs. Many admitted that they had such software on their machines and that it caused problems for them. You can read the report to get those numbers. However, the interviewers also asked the users about their machines’ behavior and were able to conclude that a lot more people actually were infected than knew they were.

Like me at home, when I lambaste my kids for “doing things” to our home computers, 60 percent of those who had problems blamed someone else with access to the computer for the existence of those problems: a kid who filled the hard drive with musical files or an uncle who visited adult sites. However, the survey revealed no difference in the quantity of computer problems between those who had sole use of a home machine and those who were merely one of several users. Hmm.

I wrote last week about Doing Something About Spyware and the Anti-Spyware Coalition’s attempt to put accepted definitions to adware, spyware, and the like, as a first step in getting a handle on the problem. But interestingly, the Pew study also found that the better informed users were about the definitions of such things and what such things did, the more they were suspicious and/or negative about even the things that ‘legitimate’ websites do. When “cookies” and what they did were explained, for example, 57 percent of users did not like that at all and said that cookies were a serious problem, even if the site collecting information on them didn’t share it with anyone else.

So, one conundrum we will be facing is that as consumers get more savvy, if they do get more savvy, they may less and less like what have become pretty standard norms for many commercial websites.

More than 90 percent of users said that they have made some change in the way they behave online, specifically in response to the threat of viruses and spyware. The good news is that 81 percent claim they have stopped opening email attachments they are unsure of. (Do we believe this?)

But, you really need to read this white paper for yourself. It d'esn’t take long and it surely will reinforce a lot of what you already know about your users. It will give you a set of data to perhaps compare your own users versus this large sample, should you care to do some surveying with similar questions. And it probably can be useful in preparing some of the educational stuff you’re going to bombard your incoming freshmen with in a little more than a month from now!

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