Most Canadians have been victim of Internet attacks, but few seem to care

Nearly 60 per cent of Canadians have been victims of virus, spyware or malware attacks on the devices they use to access the Internet.

But relatively few think they’ll be affected by an online threat in the near future, and many are only scratching the surface of protective measures they could take.

The findings appear in a major study of the knowledge and attitudes of Canadians towards cyber-security and safety done for Public Safety Canada by Ekos Research Associates. A report on the survey of 5,048 Canadians, dated August 2011, has just been posted to a government website.

Public Safety will use the study result to shape a planned multi-year public awareness campaign as part of the Harper government’s cyber-security strategy.

The EKOS survey found that Canadians have a strong appreciation of the consequences of online threats and almost all understand that they are common. More than eight in 10 are very or fairly concerned about having their personal information obtained and used without their permission.

This high level of awareness and concern provides a useful starting point for a public information campaign, the study says. “Canadians already understand the problem and agree that it is an important issue to address.�

On the other hand, only 28 per cent think it’s common for Canadians to be affected by online threats. And just one in three believe they or a family member is likely to be targeted in the next two years.

They hold those views even though 59 per cent say they’ve had a virus, spyware or malware on their computer, and almost three-quarters of those said the attacks had a great or moderate impact on them or their families.

In addition, six per cent of Canadians say they’ve been victims of financial loss or fraud and two per cent have had their identities stolen as a result of online activity, the study says. Nearly two-thirds changed their behaviour as a result of an attack.

Canadians generally think their own actions protect them from being affected by online threats, with 89 per cent saying they have anti-virus software on their computers. However, they are less sanguine about the ability of their fellow Canadians to protect themselves, with 51 per cent rating it as poor.

The study cautions that the incidence of Canadians who take precautions is likely inflated, adding: “Many are only scratching the surface of protective measures they could take to ensure they are adequately protected against online threats.�

Social networking and email stand out as the “most concentrated sources of risk� for Canadians online, the study says. More than one-quarter have accepted a stranger as a friend on a social networking site and one in five has opened an email attachment from an unknown source.

Three in four Canadians say it’s up to individuals to protect their own personal privacy online. But three in 10 feel that Internet security is beyond their capacity to handle, and 20 per cent believe there is little that can be done to protect themselves online.

While six-in-10 say they have enough information to protect themselves against online threats, a full quarter of Canadians don’t agree. “These results, in particular, point to a strong role for an information-based public education campaign,� the study says.

That campaign should deliver “simple, straightforward and action-oriented information� on what the threats are, how to recognize them, how to protect yourself and where to get additional information, the study recommends.

The survey is considered accurate to within 1.4 percentage points, plus or minus, 19 times out of 20.

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