Nine out of ten internet users say they have adjusted their online behavior out of fear of falling victim to software intrusions.

Spyware and the threat of unwanted programs being secretly loaded onto computers are becoming serious threats online. Tens of millions of Americans have been affected in the past year by software intrusions and many more have begun to take precautions by changing the way they use the internet. Overall, 91% of internet users say they have made at least one change in their online behavior to avoid unwanted software programs. Among the changes:

  • 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.

Unfortunately, many internet users’ fears are grounded in experience.

After hearing descriptions of “spyware” and “adware,” 43% of internet users, or about 59 million American adults, say they have had one of these programs on their home computer. This is probably a conservative estimate since this survey may have been the first time that respondents had heard definitions of the programs. In addition, there are significant gaps between people’s perceptions and the reality of what is on their computers and there is a very strong likelihood that a big portion of those who have had computer problems have been victimized by spyware or more aggressive computer viruses without their knowing the cause of their problems. For instance, in October 2004, the Online Safety Study by AOL and the National Cyber Security Alliance reported that 53% of respondents said they had spyware or adware on their computers, but a scan revealed that 80% of respondents actually had such programs installed.

Although most do not know the source of their woes, tens of millions have experienced computer problems in the past year 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. Sixty percent of internet users who report computer problems do not know the source, but those who do know cite viruses, spyware, adware, operating system flaws, and hardware glitches. Not everyone attempted a fix, but those who did often found that they needed help, paid or unpaid. About 28 million American adults ended up spending money to get their computer working again, typically in the range of $100.

The definitions of spyware and adware may not be clear to many internet users, but many believe that surveillance and unwanted software are serious threats to users’ security and privacy.

Before exploring the issues in depth, we asked survey respondents if they knew what certain terms meant. Eight in ten internet users say they have a good idea about what spyware is, but only half of internet users claim to have a grasp of the concept of adware. In later questions, the following descriptions were used:

  • “As you may know, certain software programs – sometimes called ‘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.”
  • “Another kind of software program – sometimes called ‘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.”

Half of internet users see software programs like spyware as a serious threat to their online security. About a quarter say they are a minor problem and more should be done to control them and the rest say such programs are just part of life on the internet and don’t really bother them. Not surprisingly, 61% of internet users who report having had spyware say it is a serious threat, compared to 43% of internet users who say they have not had spyware on their home computer.

Eight in ten internet users (and 90% of internet users who report having had adware) say that more should be done to alert consumers to the presence of adware in files they are downloading. Only about one in ten internet users say the current practice of clicking through a user agreement or disclaimer is adequate consent to install adware on a person’s computer.

Findings at a glance