Cyber Security Industry Alliance Newsletter • Volume 1, Number 10 • June 2005

Survey Research on Voter Attitudes Toward Internet Security Issues

The electorate may be as polarized on party lines as ever, but on at least one topic do Republican and Democratic voters stand together: government needs to do more to protect consumers' privacy on the Internet.

This was the key finding in a survey Pineda Consulting recently conducted of 1,003 likely voters on the topic of Internet policy on behalf of the Cyber Security Industry Alliance. Voters are becoming increasingly insecure about using the Internet. In fact, the fear of identity theft is keeping many consumers from doing business on-line. While voters may not be particularly well-versed in the details of “spyware” and “phishing,” they have little faith in the ability of the market to root out bad actors and instead feel that government ought to be doing more to keep the Internet safe. The more voters learn about spyware, the more concerned they get, but they also realize that there are differences between different kinds of software that operate in the background. Voters believe that the Congress – not the states – should pass spyware legislation that focuses on punishing perpetrators who use spyware for fraudulent purposes.

Internet Before Party

Eight months after the last federal elections, the American electorate is still feeling very partisan about the president. However, party identification is not the best predictor of where a voter will fall on a question of Internet policy. The differences between self-described Internet experts and voters who do not use the Internet at all are generally far greater than the differences between Republicans and Democrats.

Republicans and Democrats have very different views of George W. Bush. Nearly 9 in 10 Republicans (89 percent) have positive feelings about President Bush, while only 15 percent of Democrats share that sentiment. The partisan intensity does not extend to questions of Internet policy, even when the questions being asked relate to issues that are often ideologically charged in other contexts, like the proper role of government or the ability of the market to self-regulate. Republicans and Democrats both have good feelings about the Internet, with 66 percent of Republicans and 71 percent of Democrats rating the Internet positively. In comparison, 79 percent of Internet users rate the Internet positively and 5 percent negatively, while the ratio is only 35 percent positive and 15 percent negative for non-users. While there is a broad consensus among voters for greater government involvement in keeping the Internet safe, a voter’s level of familiarity with the Internet is often a better marker than party in anticipating differences in perceptions of cyber security.

Government Needs to Do More

When given a choice between a statement reading “Government is placing the right emphasis on protecting our information systems and networks” and a statement reading “Government needs to make protecting our information systems a higher priority,” 64 percent choose the latter compared to 28 percent for the former. Voters of both genders and in every region, age group and ethnicity express the same sentiment, regardless of whether they actually use the Internet or not. Almost 3 of every 5 Republicans think government needs to be doing more (58 percent “higher priority” to 33 percent “right emphasis”). Among Democrats, the percentage that believe government should make protecting our information systems a higher priority rises to 67 percent. Non-users are 3 points more likely than Internet users (66 to 63 percent) to believe that government needs to do more.

Voters do not believe that market forces are enough to protect consumers. Only 21 percent agree with the statement “The Internet will always be safe because market forces will push out companies that take unfair advantage of their customers,” while 61 percent agree that “Government needs to be responsible for making the Internet safe for consumers.” A majority of every major demographic group agrees that government needs to be responsible, including 55 percent of Republicans. Only 33 percent of Republicans believe the market can police itself.

Are Voters Afraid of the Right Threat?

Voters are nearly unanimous in their fear of identity theft. Ninety-seven percent rate identity theft a serious problem, 11 points more then the next serious problem for consumers, investment fraud (88 percent). As a result, voters want legislators to do something about the issue. Only 17 percent of voters think that existing laws are enough to protect consumer privacy on the Internet. Seventy-one percent think that new laws need to be written. Support for new laws also crosses demographic boundaries, including party identification. While 79 percent of Democrats think new laws need to be written, so do 64 percent of Republicans. Voters who do not use the Internet are more likely than Internet users to think new laws should be written, 75 percent to 70 percent.

Voters are more likely to perceive cyber security as a domestic law enforcement problem rather than an issue of national security. Only 36 percent agree with the statement “Enemy nations, organized crime and terrorist organizations are the biggest threats to the safety of the Internet,” compared to the 45 percent who agree with the statement “Small-time con artists and delinquent teenagers are the biggest threats to the safety of the Internet.” Republicans are only slightly more likely than Democrats – 39 percent to 36 percent – to view the issue in terms of national security.

Bad for Business

Privacy concerns are making Internet users hesitant to conduct business on-line. More voters who use the Internet agree with the statement “I avoid making purchases on the Internet because I am concerned that my financial information may get stolen” than agree with the statement “I am confident that my financial information is safe when I make purchases on the Internet” (48 percent for the former, 47 percent for the latter). Confidence correlates tightly with Internet expertise. Sixty-three percent of self-described Internet experts express confidence while only 30 percent avoid making purchases. With novices, the numbers flip: only 27 percent express confidence versus the 65 percent who avoid making purchases.

Voters Have Little Faith in Congress, Less in Private Industry

As much as voters are calling out for legislative help, they do not have great faith in Congress when it comes to Internet policy. Only 6 percent of voters believe that Congress just about always does what's right when it comes to the Internet, while another 27 percent believe that Congress gets it right most of the time. Sixty-two percent of voters believe Congress does what is right for the Internet only some of the time or never. However, private industry does even worse when it comes to setting policy, with only 31 percent of voters believing that industry does what is right for the Internet at least most of the time. Internet experts are more confident in private industry, but even they are only 44 percent likely to trust industry to do what is right for the Internet.

When it comes to the Internet, voters believe most in consumers groups like the Better Business Bureau. Sixty-three percent of voters think these groups can be trusted to do what is right regarding the Internet just about always or most of the time. More than 2 out of every 3 Internet experts (68 percent) trust consumer groups. Voters want Congress to act, but they are also looking for an honest, knowledgeable broker to help them deal with the dangers in the marketplace.

All Voters Do Not Associate Spyware with a Loss of Privacy...Yet

The more voters learn about spyware, the more it scares them. Eighty-three percent of Internet users know the term but only 39 percent of non-users, compared to the 93 percent of Internet users and 56 percent of non-users that know the term spam. To test how voters feel once they know more about spyware, respondents were read the following description:

Spyware is software that gets loaded on to a user's computer without permission. It collects demographic and usage information off of the user's computer without the user's knowledge. Over time, spyware can consume computer resources and slow operations. Some spyware can scan a user's computer to gain passwords, enabling even greater access to the user's computer. Spyware is intentionally designed to be difficult to remove.

Put in those terms, 93 percent of voters say that spyware is a serious problem – 32 points higher than before respondents heard the description.

Not all spyware, however, is created equal. Some kinds of software that operate in the background, like adware, can be perceived as relatively benign when not put in privacy terms. Fifty-three percent of Internet users say that internet ads are useful because they allow many of the sites they use to stay free of charge while only 40 percent say they would rather pay more to use the Internet than have to deal with Internet ads. But when Internet users learn that adware often tracks a user's personal information and passes it along to third parties, even the fact that adware helps keep software free doesn't keep 74 percent of Internet users from thinking the risks outweigh the benefits. In contrast, 41 percent of Internet users say the benefits of cookies and 67 percent say the benefits of automatic software updates outweigh the risks.

Voters Want Congress to Pass a Law that Focuses on Enforcement

Voters believe that privacy protection laws are the bailiwick of the United States Congress. Sixty percent of voters agree with the statement “Only the U.S. Congress should create the laws that protect privacy on the Internet so that consumers in every state have the same protection and businesses don't have to raise prices to design different products for every state,” compared to only 35 percent that agree with the statement “State legislatures should be allowed to create their own laws regarding privacy on the Internet if they do not feel like their consumers are adequately protected by federal law.” Every major demographic group supports preemption by at least a 10-point margin.

The reason voters choose preemption is because they believe consumers in every state deserve the same protection. Only 23 percent of voters who favor preemption do so because it will keep businesses from having to raise prices in order to comply with a patchwork quilt of privacy standards. Seventy-one percent of voters support preemption to give consumers the same protection nationwide. The voters who agree most with the price argument are those who make purchases on the Internet all the time, yet even they agree more with the national standards argument by a margin of 64 – 34 percent.

Voters like any law that sounds like it is going to deal with spyware, but they prefer a law that focuses on enforcement. After being read a short description of three bills currently making their way through Congress, no less than 77 percent of voters responded favorably to each one. But when the bills are distilled to a tag phrase or word describing each bill's philosophical approach – a technical solution or enforcement or disclosure – and voters are asked to choose one, enforcement wins by a 14-point margin. Among all voters, enforcement gets 37 percent, disclosure 23 percent and a technical solution 21 percent. The margin narrows with Internet users, with only 9 points separating enforcement (36 percent) and disclosure (25 percent), with a technical solution another point back (24 percent).

Tech Companies Can Help Restore Confidence

Despite not trusting private industry to keep the marketplace safe, voters do have a warm view of technology companies. The three categories of technology companies tested all did better than government with voters. Computer companies led the way (61 percent positive – 5 percent negative), followed closely by software companies (58 – 6) and Internet companies (58 – 4). In each case, the biggest determinant of awareness of and positive feelings for the category of companies was use of the Internet. For example, computer companies were rated positively by 70 percent of Internet users and negatively by 4 percent. For non-users, the numbers dropped to 39 percent positive and 8 percent negative. Overall, the companies have a reservoir of good will from which to draw in addressing the spyware issue.

In addition to enforcement legislation from Congress, the public would also like to have some assurance that the software they are acquiring meets rigorous privacy and security standards. It is here that technology companies have the chance to put their positive ratings with the public to good use. Sixty-four percent of Internet users say that a seal of approval from an alliance of legitimate high-tech companies would make them feel more confident about the software they purchase or download. The opinion leaders among Internet users – Internet experts – are even more likely to feel confident (67 percent) about this seal of approval, as are Internet users 65 and older (72 percent). This is a significant improvement over the slim majority (51 percent) who would gain confidence from a seal of approval offered by the FTC.

CSIA Comment on the Implications of the Survey

Clearly voters are concerned about the security of their personal information on the Internet, and that fear is inhibiting the full potential of e-commerce. Keeping the Internet a place where consumers feel confident doing business can only be achieved through a coordinated, comprehensive approach that includes tough punishment through better laws, high security standards in companies, partnership with consumer groups, and protection for consumers nationwide. CSIA believes we must be careful about the public policy course we chart in the next few years as it will have long-term consequences for privacy, innovation, and economic growth. When legislation is deemed necessary, such as in the case of securing personal information, Congress should not duplicate existing requirements already set forth under existing law, but should address gaps in existing law and encourage the adoption of widely accepted cyber security standards.

The high level of concern voters have about identity theft demonstrates that cyber security is already high on the list of problems voters want policymakers to solve and that it will likely be a key issue in the upcoming election cycle.

Survey Methodology

From May 2 to May 9, 2005, Pineda Consulting conducted a national telephone survey of 1,003 likely voters. Of those respondents, 729 are Internet users. The total margin of error for the survey is plus or minus 3 percent. The margin of error for Internet users is plus or minus 4 percent. The margin of error for other demographic subgroups is higher.

About Pineda Consulting

Pineda Consulting is a strategic research and communications firm located in Pasadena, California. The firm was opened by Andre Pineda, the former Deputy Commissioner of Corporations for the State of California. Pineda's polling experience includes Peter D. Hart Research Associates, where he worked on the NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll, and Greenberg Research, conducting polls for Fortune 500 clients like BP. Pineda was also the senior analyst at Greenberg Research for the 2000 Mexican presidential campaign. More information about Pineda Consulting can be found at