Spyware Concerns Changing Consumers’ Online Habits

One of the long-feared results of Internet security problems — its potential effect on consumer behavior and eventually, spending — might be starting to materialize, according to a new report.

The Pew Internet & American Life project says that a survey that it conducted found that 91 percent of Internet users have changed their online behavior out of fear of falling victim to hidden spyware scams.

Pew Project Associate Director Susannah Fox said the changes might be the result of increasing awareness of spyware’s dangers and its prevalence online. She said 68 percent of Web users — or some 93 million Americans — had computer problems in the past year consistent with spyware and virus infections.

Doing Things Differently

“Familiarity breeds contempt when it comes to spyware. The more Internet users know about these programs, the more they want to sound the alarm and take steps to protect themselves,” Fox said.

She added, “These survey results show that as Internet users gain experience with spyware and adware, they are more likely to say they are changing their behavior.”

For now, the types of sites that users are avoiding are mainly peer-to-peer networks and sites about which little is known. To date, core e-commerce appears to be unaffected by the concerns, with consumers confident they can trust well-known sites — from eBay to Amazon and with many in between — to be spyware free.

However, analysts still worry that continued high-profile security concerns will, over time, convince some would-be online shoppers to steer clear of the Web, or at least to be very guarded with their information when they go there.

Where Did It Come From?

Pew said that 49 percent of Web users regard spyware as a “serious threat to their online security,” yet, somewhat ironically, some 73 percent also said they do not closely read the terms of service when agreeing to download peer-to-peer programs or other freeware from the Web. Spyware is often piggybacked onto those types of programs, often loaded onto a user’s computer without his or her knowledge at the same time as a legitimate program.

The spyware scourge might get the blame for problems it’s not even causing. Pew said 60 percent of users did not ever figure out what caused problems with their PCs. A quarter of users have seen programs appear on their systems that they did not knowingly install, however, and 18 percent said their home pages changed for no apparent reason.

That uncertainty might be the most alarming development for the Internet industry and e-commerce.

“What is more alarming is the larger universe of people who have struggled with mysterious computer problems, but have no idea why,” Fox said. “Internet users are increasingly frustrated and frightened that they are not in charge of their Internet experience.”

That sense of lost control stands to dampen e-commerce growth as much as any specific security threat. After all, viruses and related threats have been part of the Internet culture from the start and have not impeded growth to date.

However, spyware is seen as somewhat different in that even users who take the precautionary measures advised by PC security experts — such as not opening unknown attachments to e-mails and keeping virus software up-to-date — is not always enough to keep spyware at bay.

On Everyone’s Mind

Spyware has been around for some time, but in recent months has shot to the top of the hit list when it comes to Web security. New York state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer made history by targeting a legitimate online marketing firm — Intermix — as a propagator of adware and spyware, a case that was recently settled with no admission of wrongdoing.

One of the bones of contention in that and other cases is what exactly qualifies as spyware. Marketing firms say ad-delivering software and other programs are being lumped in with true spyware, which is intended to be used to track a victim’s actions and capture personal and sensitive information that can be used in identity theft and other schemes.

Part of the confusion and concern among consumers might stem from that same difficulty in defining what spyware is. Many antivirus firms have released programs to stem spyware and those filters often capture a wide range of different software code.

Richard Stiennon, vice president for Threat Research at Webroot, told the E-Commerce Times that spyware can be as simple as tracking cookies installed on a user’s machine without his or her knowledge. By Webroot’s count, 144,000 different URLs reviewed at the end of March had some form of adware or spyware on them.

“When you look at the big picture,” a number of high-profile marketing sites fall under the spyware and adware umbrella, Stiennon said. “That’s probably not helping consumers feel safe or in control.”

This story was originally published on July 7, 2005, and is brought to you today as part of our Best of ECT News series.

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