Gartner: 86 percent of users concerned about security

When it comes to security online, the Internet still has an image problem, with 86 percent of U.S. adults indicating that they are very concerned about the security of online bank and brokerage transactions, according to a study released Tuesday by Gartner.

The report, "Privacy and Security: The Hidden Growth Strategy," was published by GartnerG2, a research service of Gartner, and was based on two consumer surveys of over 7,000 adults living in the U.S. and over the age of 18, the company said in a statement. The surveys were conducted in September and October of last year, according to the study's author, Gartner analyst Laura Behrens.

Of those polled, 83 percent said that they were also very worried about how secure their Social Security and credit card numbers were online, while 70 percent expressed concern over the security of personal information such as income and assets, Gartner said.

"Though we didn't specifically ask people what they feared would happen to stolen online information, their main concern was clearly the loss of credit card numbers and secondly the loss of any other type of information that could have financial implications," Behrens said.

According to Behrens, the study pointed to three levels of concern for people. "The top (level) is by far and away the concern over their financial information, such as credit card and banking information. The second level of concern is over safety for themselves in the physical world, where users are concerned about strangers having access to their home address or telephone number. In that instance it's mostly parents who are concerned for the physical safety of their children," Behrens said.

The third level of online security concern -- protecting the privacy your online profile, including your e-mail address -- is a much lower priority for users, Behrens said. "Most people don't believe that their e-mail address makes it easy to trace their personal information in the physical world. But if people believed you could trace their home address through their e-mail address, that would quickly change," Behrens said.

The study found that high profile cases of security breaches -- such as the Sircam computer virus first noticed on July 17 -- are the main factors feeding consumer fear of online fraud, Behrens said. Sircam is an e-mail virus that has the ability to take documents off of the hard drive of the system it has infected, to then resend that document when the worm spreads. It was also reported that in some cases, the virus had deleted all of the files from the hard drives of some infected systems.

"Computer viruses such as Sircam are a separate issue (from the protection online consumer data by companies), but people have a hard time tearing those two things apart. Things like Sircam and other viruses that send stuff out over the Internet to attack systems and that you don't have much control over induces much more anxiety in consumers (than other online security issues), and perhaps deservedly so," Behrens said.

When asked what kept them from making online transactions, 60 percent of those surveyed pointed to security and privacy concerns as their main reason for shying away from doing business online, Gartner said.

Only about half of all Americans currently online use the Internet to buy products or services, partly due to the fact that online consumers have not been educated on how to protect themselves online. Companies need to do more to make consumers aware of what security measures their Web site has in place and how it works, the study found.

Even among those American adults who do make transactions online, there are many still uncomfortable about providing personal information over the Internet. Fifty percent of those surveyed said that they've entered information to buy a product online in spite of their security concerns, Gartner said.

As an indication of people's conflicting feelings about Internet security, a full 20 percent of respondents to the survey who had said that they had made a purchase online within the last three months also indicated that they would not enter personal information such as their name or address over the Internet -- something which they had clearly already done, Gartner said.

Behrens attributed the contradictory response to a number of factors. "One is that we are not entirely rational critters and we say contradictory things. We also forget things, such as having entered information onto a Web site," Behrens said.

But in some cases, users who say they would never give out personal information online actually due so because of a combination of "trust and cookies," Behrens said.

"There is often a small list or a small group of sites that a user goes to where they have given information in the past and that was stored by a cookie. The user returns to the site, feels comfortable there and has either forgotten or not realized that their information has been saved through the use of cookies. Sometimes, they may not even be concerned because they trust that site," Behrens said.

Though corporations are spending more money and effort than ever before on online security, even more resources must be devoted to protecting consumer information online, Behrens said.

"Enterprises have really begun to understand that this is possibly the biggest single issue concerning the heath and growth of online commerce, certainly on a consumer level, but there is still a way to go," Behrens said.

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