A large number of Americans still fail to use basic Internet security tools and there remains a substantial gap between the protections people think they have and what is actually installed on their computers, according to a new cyber security study released by the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA) and Symantec, makers of Norton security software.

The NCSA-Symantec Online Safety Study found that more than 80 percent of Americans claim to have a firewall -- designed to prevent hackers and criminals from stealing personal information -- installed on their computer. Yet, in reality only 42 percent had adequate firewall protection according to the study. Americans do seem to have heeded the computer virus warnings as 95 percent of those checked had anti-virus software installed.

"As we begin National Cyber Security Month, this national study of America's cyber security protections provides us with a critical baseline of understanding of how we conduct ourselves and protect ourselves online," said NCSA Executive Director Michael Kaiser. "Great strides have been made but our citizens, economy and national infrastructure will remain at unnecessary risk until every computer user in America has anti-virus, anti-spyware and firewall software on their computers."

On the bright side, users' perceptions matched closely with reality in the realm of anti-spyware software. The study revealed virtually no difference between the percentage of Americans who had anti-spyware software installed (82 percent) and the percentage that said they had it installed (83 percent). Still, close to one-fifth of all users are not running adequate spyware defenses. Spam filters, however, were a different story. Seventy-five percent of poll respondents said they were using spam filters, compared to only 52 percent who had them installed to prevent unwanted e-mail.

While many Americans still struggle to understand basic cyber security tools and practices, they do recognize that security is a major issue. Only 26 percent of Americans polled said they felt their computers were "very safe" from viruses, and only 21 percent said their computers were "very safe" from hacker attacks.

"We must redouble our efforts to ensure that Americans know how to use all of the tools necessary to protect their computers, themselves and their families from harm," Kaiser said. "Too often, cyber security has been made to seem complicated and inaccessible. We want to help all Americans get to the point where following basic cyber security practices become as natural as looking both ways before crossing the street.

-cmm