Would You Rather Share Your Password or Drive Without a Seatbelt?

Unless you’re some sort of adrenaline junky like Jeb Corliss, you know better than to engage in certain risky behaviors like BASE jumping from the Empire State Building. According to a new survey from Webroot, though, a majority of people now consider online activity to be a greater risk than real-world activities.

The Internet is a part of mainstream culture, and users—both consumers and business users—perform a wide variety of tasks online that can potentially expose them to risk. Sharing personal information on social networks, accessing bank accounts, purchasing goods online, sending email, and other activities can put sensitive identity information and financial data in jeopardy if not properly protected.

Would you rather ride a bicycle without a helmet, or share your password with a stranger?
Perceived Risk

Webroot surveyed more than 1,600 users age 18 and over to gauge the perceived risk associated with different online and real-world behaviors. For example, how risky is it to leave you car unlocked, or drive without a seatbelt versus how risky is it to do online banking from an insecure Wi-Fi hotspot, or share your password.

Some of the Webroot findings are quite interesting:

  • 85 percent of respondents believe it is high-risk to use a PC online without security software in place, while only 82 percent consider it high-risk to leave their car unlocked.
  • 65 percent of those surveyed would be reluctant to share personal information over the phone, but 75 percent consider it risky to make an online purchase from an unknown website.
  • Only 72 percent of the respondents consider it high-risk to arrange an in person meeting with someone they’ve met online, but 81 percent would feel threatened by opening an email attachment from an unknown source.
  • 61 percent of those who have actually lost a laptop, tablet, or netbook say that it is the same or worse than having a purse or wallet stolen.

As a quick reality check, Webroot didn’t ask survey respondents to compare these things directly. In other words, they were asked to rank the relative risk of different online and offline behaviors independently, not “which do you think is riskier: texting while drunk, or riding a bicycle without a helmet?”

Still, the perceived risk associated with the different activities is revealing. It’s indicative of the general state of online security, and seems to illustrate generally high user awareness of the threats that exist.

I’m reminded a little of a lesson I learned from Bruce Schneier’s book Beyond Fear. Fear is irrational and the things we perceive as fearful are often illogical. For instance, flying is far safer statistically than driving, yet most people with a fear of flying have no qualms with driving 75 mph down the highway.

Online Safety

Thankfully, there are simple things users can do to be safer online. Just like people are generally in the habit of locking their car door, and wearing a seatbelt, with the right habits the Internet can be a little less risky as well.

  • Protect your mobile device like you protect your PC. Smartphones and tablets contain a wide variety of sensitive information and possibly even financial details and access to accounts. Make sure you use the security controls available to prevent unauthorized access, and install third-party security protection if it’s available for your platform.
  • Watch what you do on free Wi-Fi connections. It’s great to be able to connect to the Internet from hotels, airports, and coffee shops, but stick to checking the news and weather. Don’t make the mistake of logging in to your bank account, or entering credit card information to make an online purchase from an insecure wireless network.
  • Guard your password. Protect that string of letters, numbers, and special characters as vigorously as you protect the key to your front door or car. Don’t write it down to leave laying about for a stranger to discover, and don’t ever share it. You should also use different passwords for more sensitive sites like your bank, and change your password periodically.

Follow these tips. Actually, don’t just follow them—commit them to unconscious habit just like wearing your seatbelt, and you will be as safe and secure online as you are in the real world.

Oh, and don’t BASE jump.

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