July 6, 2005

Spyware problems have struck tens of millions of computer users

Tens of millions of Americans have been struck by so-called spyware. Fully 91% of internet users have changed the way they behave online as they try to avoid unwanted and invasive software. A new nationwide survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project shows that:

  • 81% of internet users say they have stopped opening email attachments unless they are sure these documents are safe.
  • 48% of internet users say they have stopped visiting particular Web sites that they fear might deposit unwanted programs on their computers.
  • 25% of internet users say they have stopped downloading music or video files from peer-to-peer networks to avoid getting unwanted software programs on their computers.
  • 18% of internet users say they have started using a different Web browser to avoid software intrusions.

    A new Pew Internet Project report shows that about 93 million American internet users (68% of them) have had computer trouble in the past year that is consistent with problems caused spyware and viruses, though 60% of those who had problems were not sure where the problem originated. Some 25% of internet users have seen new programs on their computers that they did not install or new icons on their desktop that seemed to come out of nowhere. One in five internet users (18%) have had their homepage inexplicably changed.

    The report, written by PIP’s Associate Director Susannah Fox, says that those who have broadband connections at home and those who range far and wide online are among those most vulnerable to spyware. Some of the most risky online behaviors that seem to attract spyware are downloading peer-to-peer services and swapping files over them, visiting adult Web sites, and playing online games.

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

    This new telephone survey was conducted among a sample of 1,336 internet users and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 points.

    It was designed to probe the impact of spyware and adware on people’s internet experiences. The report used these definitions in talking to respondents:

  • Spyware: can be installed on a person’s computer without their explicit consent, either by ‘piggy-backing’ onto a file or program the person downloads from the internet or just by visiting a particular Web site. These programs can keep track of a person’s internet habits and the sites they visit, and can transmit this information back to a central source.
  • Adware: comes bundled with free files and programs people download from the internet, such as games, file-sharing programs, and screensavers. These programs can keep track of a person’s internet habits and the sites they visit, and can use that information to provide targeted advertising on the person’s computer.

    Fully 49% of internet users see spyware as a serious threat to their online security. And many believe that more should be done to alert consumers when adware is being loaded onto their computers at the same time they are installing other software, such as a peer-to-peer programs. In many cases, adware is installed after internet users check off and consent to a user agreement, but 73% of internet users admit they do not always read such agreements.

    About the Pew Internet & American Life Project: The Pew Internet Project produces reports that explore the impact of the internet on children, families, communities, the work place, schools, health care, and civic/political life. The Project aims to be an authoritative source on the evolution of the internet through collection of data and analysis of real-world developments as they affect the virtual world. Support for the non-profit Pew Internet Project is provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The Project is an initiative of the Pew Research Center. The Project’s Web site: www.pewinternet.org