July 6, 2005

Spyware

Computer Problems Vex Millions

Introduction

Although most do not know the source, tens of millions are dealing with computer problems that are consistent with problems caused by spyware or viruses:

  • 52% of home internet users say their computer has slowed down or is not running as fast as it used to.
  • 51% of home internet users say their computer started freezing up or crashing, requiring them to shut down or reset.
  • 25% of home internet users say a new program appeared on their computer that they didn’t install or new icons suddenly appeared on their desktop.
  • 18% of home internet users say their internet home page changed without them resetting it.

In sum, 68% of home internet users, or about 93 million American adults, have experienced at least one of these problems in the past year. There is no difference between internet users who are the sole users of their home computer and those who share the computer with other people. There is also no difference between those who bought the computer within the past year and those who have an older machine.

Of those who have experienced problems, 31%, or about 29 million, would describe the problems as major. Eight in ten of those experiencing problems (79%) said they have taken action to fix the situation and 20% said the problems were not that severe.

Most do not know the problem’s source, but those who do often blame family members or friends for doing things online that cause unwanted programs to be installed or other computer problems.

Sixty percent of those who had problems on their home computer in the past year say they do not know the source of the problem; 39% say they know the source. Internet users who know the source of their problems name viruses, spyware, adware, and software glitches, along with complaints about the age or shortcomings of the computer or operating system. Family members are often accused by one another of downloading materials that lead to computer problems. For example, respondents mentioned a cousin who downloaded porn, a son who “filled the computer with a lot of junk,” and multiple citations of children’s downloading activities. (Again, there is no difference between internet users who are the sole users of their home computer and those who share the computer with other people. Both groups experience computer problems to an equal degree. Respondents may be more apt to provide details about a family member’s online exploits than their own. The questionnaire associated with this report contains verbatim responses about the exact nature of the problem and the suspected source.)

Internet users who report having spyware are especially likely to say they have had computer problems in the past year.

Internet users who say they have had spyware on their computer are more likely to report these problems. Seventy-eight percent of those who report spyware say their computer has had one of these problems in the past year, compared to 59% of internet users who do not report spyware on their computers.

Again, malfunctions and interference other than spyware may be behind some of the reported computer problems among internet users, but the higher incidence of problems among those who report spyware suggests that these unwanted programs are the source of computer problems for many internet users.

Broadband users are more likely than dial-up users to say a new program or icon appeared unexpectedly.

Broadband users are at higher risk than dial-up users for software intrusions because the “always on” connection makes a tempting target for hackers, especially if users do not put security measures such as a firewall in place. But hackers are not the only threat to home broadband users who take advantage of the speed to visit more sites and try more online activities. The faster the connection, the greater the chance for unwanted software to sneak onto a machine. For example, when researchers from Symantec Corporation plugged in a new computer and surfed on an unprotected connection for an hour, they found that adware software had been installed without their knowledge and pop-up ads began cluttering the screen.25

This survey finds that broadband users are more likely than dial-up users to say a new program appeared on their computer that they didn’t install or new icons suddenly appeared on their desktop. Broadband users and dial-up users are equally likely to report  home-page changes or system glitches.

Fixing the computer is not at the top of most people’s to-do list.

Twenty percent of internet users who said they had experienced at least one computer problem in the past year decided not to attempt a fix. Of those who decided that the problem was worth trying to fix, 43% took action within a week of the first symptoms appearing. Another 26% of those who tried to fix the problem said they lived with it for at least a week, but less than a month. A third group, 29% of those who tried to fix their computer, said the problem had been going on for a month or longer before they got around to attempting a remedy.

Sometimes it takes a village to fix a computer. Half of computer fixes are quick and easy, but one in five problems is never solved.

Thirty-nine percent of those who tried to fix the problem on their home computer said they tackled it alone. Forty-two percent got help from a friend, family member, or colleague. Seventeen percent hired someone to repair their computer and 6% used a free user-support service.26

Half of those who tried to remedy the situation with their home computer said the problem was fixed quickly and easily (48%). Thirty-one percent said the problem was fixed but only after considerable time and effort. Fully 20% of those who attempted a fix said the problem has not been solved.

Most figure out a free solution, but some must spend significant sums to fix their ailing computer.

Most people (58% of those who tried to fix the problem) did not have to spend any money to repair their home computer. However, 39% of those who attempted a fix, or about 28 million American adults, did have to spend money to get their computer working again – $129.15 is the mean amount spent by those who tried to fix the problem.

Some people are protecting themselves with anti-virus programs and firewalls.

The great majority (88%) of home internet users say they have virus protection on their main home computer. Broadband users are more likely than dial-up users to say they have virus protection (92% vs. 83%).

One-fifth (22%) of those with virus protection say that they are using the program set up by their internet service provider. Thirty-nine percent of those with virus protection say someone else set it up for them. Thirty-seven percent of those with virus protection say they set up the program themselves.

Sixty-five percent of those with virus protection say that it updates automatically; 26% say they have to download updates on their own; and 9% do not know. Twenty-three percent of those with virus protection say it updates daily, 33% say it updates weekly, 26% say it updates less often than weekly, and 18% do not know.

More than half (56%) of home internet users say they have firewall protection on their main home computer. Broadband users are more likely than dial-up users to say they have a firewall (68% vs. 44%).

These findings are in line with other studies of home computer security measures. In a July 2004 study conducted online, the Bentley Survey on Consumers and Internet Security found that 75.6% of broadband users have installed a firewall to protect their home computer and 90% of all home users have installed anti-virus software, although only 46% always update it.27 In September-October 2004, the AOL/NCSA Online Safety Study combined in-person interviews with computer scans to reveal that respondents’ perceptions pretty much matched the reality when it came to the presence of anti-virus protection and firewalls on their home computers, but the majority were not up-to-date or set up properly. Only 33% of anti-virus programs had been updated in the past week. Seventy-two percent of respondents did not have a properly configured firewall on their computer.28

  1. See “Spyware firms targeting children” (MSNBC: May 5, 2005). Available at: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/7735192/.
  2. Percentages exceed 100% due to multiple responses.
  3. See http://www.bentley.edu/events/iscw2004/survey_findings.pdf.
  4. See http://www.staysafeonline.info/news/safety_study_v04.pdf.