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Spyware fears prompt changing net habits

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The threat of spyware and other unwanted software programs is changing the way people use the internet, according to a survey of US net users from the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Nine out of ten internet users quizzed said they'd "adjusted their online behavior" out of fear of falling victim to malware attacks. Pew notes that user fears are often grounded in personal experience. A quarter (25 per cent) of net users have spotted new programs or desktop icons on their PCs that they hadn't installed. One in five internet users (18 per cent) have had their homepage inexplicably changed. Both are common signs of malware infection.

Two in three (68 per cent) of those polled have experienced PC problems over the last year consistent with either spyware or viral infection, although 60 per cent of those who had problems weren't sure of the cause of their difficulties.

The survey found:

  • 81 per cent of net users say they have stopped opening unsolicited email attachments
  • Half those quizzed (48 per cent) say they have stopped visiting potentially dodgy web sites out of spyware concerns
  • A quarter (25 per cent) of those questioned said they have stopped downloading music or video files from peer-to-peer networks in order to avoid getting unwanted software programs on their computers.
  • A minority of surfers (18 per cent) say they have changed the web browser software they use in order to avoid malware attack

"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 Pew’s associate director Susannah Fox, the author of its spyware report. "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."

According to Pew's study net users are changing their surfing habits but it's perhaps premature to think that they're following security advice from vendors. Only one in three Windows XP in the US have applied Microsoft's heavily promoted Service Pack 2 update, which promises improved defences against hacking and computer virus attack. "We know that the percentage of people using Windows XP SP 2 is lower than we would like it to be. One in three machines that run Windows XP is running SP 2. Customers are still reluctant to upgrade," Mario Juarez, a security product manager at Microsoft, told Silicon. ®

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