Survey: Security Concerns Don't Scare Young People Away from Risky Online Behavior

Poll of 1,000 18- to 24-year-olds found that at least half of them are willing to sacrifice security when it comes to file-sharing, social networking and online shopping.

by / April 26, 2010

The Web can be a dangerous place for those who aren't careful. Cyber-criminals can steal identities and cash from the reckless, and users can embarrass themselves and harm their professional reputations if they post or lose track of questionable photos. Despite these risks, young adults seem content to conduct online activities without giving security much thought, according to recent research.

A recent poll of 1,000 18- to 24-year-olds found that at least half of their age group is willing to sacrifice security when it comes to file-sharing, social networking and online shopping.

"They have heard their entire lives to be careful online, and while most of them have had an incident, the damage of that incident hasn't been very lasting or permanent. So most of them are making a risk decision in their head, and then after that, they're not even revisiting that decision as time goes on," said Sam Curry, chief technology officer of marketing at RSA, the security division of EMC that commissioned TRU Research to research the behavior of young people online, polling from February 26 to March 8.

"They decide, 'Ah, I've heard about viruses, heard about hackers. It's old news.' Then the next time around, they're not even thinking about the risk equation anymore," Curry said.

The findings, disclosed in the "Generation Y Online Security Survey" were released on April 20. Data included the following:

  • 96 percent of young adults believe that most people their age aren't as careful online as they should be, if at all.
  • 76 percent say most people their age are willing to take chances with security in return for lower prices on things they want or need.
  • 64 percent are concerned about enabling hackers to access their hard drive or files, yet 46 percent admit to using a file-sharing app that allows others to access their computers and files, and 42 percent say they access private documents or files on public computers.
  • 56 percent are concerned about someone hacking into their e-mail or social network account, yet 28 percent never log out of e-mail and 25 percent never log out of social networking.
  • 91 percent of social networkers say they are social network friends with someone they don't know well, if at all; 65 percent say their contact information is viewable by friends only; and 18 percent say their contact info on their social network profile is viewable by people outside their "friends" list.

Curry said that when it comes to applications and software tools, young people are more concerned with the results and functions of the tools than the actual tools themselves, or more secure methods of using them. They're thinking about results, not risks and processes behind them.

"They're thinking about the actions they're taking. If you force them to face a security challenge, you're actually slowing down their ability to focus on the task and that's immensely frustrating to all people," he said.

But that activity could also have potentially devastating effects on a person's professional life. If young people are a bit more liberal with revealing personal details or risqué photos, what then? According to the survey, 44 percent are concerned about photos of themselves ending up online without their knowledge, and 33 percent are concerned about being turned down for or losing a job because of suggestive photos or posted content.

The survey results disclosed interesting details regarding how young people feel about online photos and personal activity. Sixty-seven percent admitted to having posted risky content, photos or video online, 57 percent have used profanity, 26 percent have posted sexual comments, 25 percent have made compromising or suggestive posts they wouldn't want a parent or boss to see, and 27 percent are "friends" with a boss.

Although rules likely vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, government workplaces often have stringent policies when it comes to Internet use on the job. But the new, inbound work force will be filled with young adults who have a different perspective than generations before them.

"Government very often has more restrictions and controls around data than the private sector does. In the private sector, it's a financial equation -- you lose data, it's a big sum of money. In the government, when you're talking about citizens' rights and you're talking about things that can have constitutional bearing, that's big," Curry said.

Seventy-nine percent of young adults employed full time said they conducted personal activities while at work, 18 percent employed full time spent an hour a day or more on personal online activities at work and 29 percent employed full time search for jobs while on a work computer.


Hilton Collins

Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.