Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Yet more research illustrates how little knowledge computer users possess to protect themselves from online threats

On the heels of data from last month reporting computer users’ unfamiliarity with computer security threats, yet more research now indicates that people don’t know how online privacy works. The level of unfamiliarity with computer security is astounding, but I believe consumers will abandon ecommerce once they understand the danger unless they receive proper education immediately.

Last month, a Ponemon Institute study suggested that people are failing to grasp the dangers of spyware. Last week the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center released the results of new research, which finds that respondents are unaware of how Web sites aggregate and use visitors’ personal information.

According to a PC World article published on June 1, many respondents share an inaccurate understanding of online privacy. Of participants in the Annenberg study, 75 percent answered, for instance, that any posted Web site privacy policy automatically means the organization displaying it will not distribute visitors’ personal information to third parties—an incorrect assumption.

People don’t know how online privacy works—or, more accurately, how it doesn’t. Just because a Web site may display a ‘privacy policy’ doesn’t mean a visitor’s personal information—which is collected—is safe from distribution and reuse. It’s in the fine print, but who reads the fine print? Many computer users have no clue.

The Annenberg findings also revealed that 49 percent of participants were incapable of spotting phishing e-mail scams. Authors of the Annenberg study, titled “Open to Exploitation: American Shoppers Online and Offline,” offered a number of measures to combat apparent shortcomings in public awareness.

Any intelligent discourse about how to fix the problems of online security is a positive development. The Annenberg findings, ironically, seem to support the lackadaisical, irresponsible approach industry has adopted. The banking, computer, and online retailing industries clearly aren’t bearing the brunt of online threats because awareness is nil. Consumers, oblivious to a lack of security online, continue to use the Web indiscriminately.

We must relentlessly advocate education to stave an ‘identity theft apocalypse’ and strengthen online security. Right now, industry is running on borrowed time. Additional recent research hints that consumers will wise up sooner or later to the gravity of online threats and leave the Web in droves.


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