February 22, 2006

Invasion of the Computer Snatchers

This week’s Washington Post magazine story, “Invasion of the Computer Snatchers,” should serve as yet another wake-up call to internet users who do not take precautions against software intrusions. Brian Krebs profiles a programmer who hacks home computers to install adware and spyware – thousands per day. In a survey last spring, we described spyware and adware and 43% of internet users, or about 59 million American adults, say they have had such a program on their home computer. A separate survey conducted by AOL and the National Cyber Security Alliance shows that this is a low estimate. Like us, they asked respondents if they thought they had spyware or adware on their computer and 46% said yes. But then, living out the dream of every survey researcher, the AOL/NCSA team walked over and did an immediate scan of the person’s home computer to check their answer. Not surprisingly, a lot more people actually had spyware or adware: 62% of respondents. The AOL/NCSA team showed each respondent the results of their home computer scan and asked some follow-up questions.

  • 92% of respondents said they did not know the programs were on their computer.
  • 91% said they had not given permission for someone to install those programs.
  • 81% accepted the technicians’ offer to remove all of the mysterious programs from their computer. This was the second year of the AOL/NCSA Online Safety study and I hope it continues, not only because the data shed light on the issues, but because for some internet users, it is the only way they will ever be able to rid their machines of unwanted software.