Thanks for Listening

By Robert MacMillan

washingtonpost.com Staff Writer

Thursday, July 7, 2005; 9:45 AM

I usually take a reality check when a survey tells me that 91 percent of any group does one thing or feels another. But when I hear that 91 percent of Internet users have changed their online habits to avoid spyware, I can believe it.

That's the top finding from a survey conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project in Washington. Among its other notable conclusions: 81 percent of Internet users don't open e-mail attachments without knowing that they are safe; 48 percent stopped visiting suspect Web sites; 25 percent don't use music-swapping networks anymore; and 18 percent have switched Internet browsers.

Wow. It's like everybody took all the online security advice that my colleagues and I ever dished out on washingtonpost.com. If these numbers accurately reflect the sentiments of the U.S. population, people are starting to take more responsibility for their online safety. From there, it wouldn't be exaggerating to imagine we've turned a corner in Internet security.

Pew's survey was based on telephone interviews conducted across the United States with more than 1,300 Internet users. Just to get an idea of whether this sounded right, I called Matt Bishop, a computer security researcher at the University of California, Davis.

"What you're describing to me sounds like a good thing," he said. "People are getting more cautious."

Bishop said we probably can attribute these numbers to several months' worth of stories about identity theft -- and how to prevent it -- seizing the headlines.

I can imagine. As regular readers know, I usually cast my mother in the starring role as the intelligent person who suffers from a persistent case of technophobia. And just like an actor on cue, she sent me an e-mail Tuesday asking me who might have opened an America Online account with her credit card number.

If this happened a year ago, she would have suspected that someone had gone through her purse. This time, she called the technology reporter because she had identity theft on the brain.

The Pew survey covered spyware, not identity theft, but one isn't necessarily independent from the other. Here's a two-word glossary for people still unclear on the different "wares" they keep reading about:

# Adware: Software programs that report back to advertising companies about the sites that you visit online. They arrive at your computer via free programs such as instant-messaging icons and games that you find online. Ever wonder why you get random pop-up ads when you're not even surfing the Web? Blame adware and the companies whose ads are addling you. Pew notes, by the way, that people often agree to download these programs because they failed to read it in the 9 million pages of fine print that accompany user agreements. If you're downloading software, read the agreement. That's an order .

# Spyware: Same thing, only worse. Spyware not only reports to its maker what you're doing online, it can deliver your personal data to hackers who then use it for their ends.

When I heard about Mom's AOL situation and thought back to her computer's recent erratic behavior, it seemed clear that her laptop might have been transformed into a credit card theft machine.

By erratic, I mean the kinds of things that Pew says many Americans experience on their computers at home and in the office: 25 percent reported new programs or icons appearing seemingly out of nowhere on their desktops. Eighteen percent said their browser home pages suddenly changed without explanation. That, actually, might be the only number that I consider suspect. I bet that more people than that have experienced the notorious changing home page.

Susannah Fox, the Pew researcher who authored the report, put it this way in the press release: "Familiarity breeds contempt when it comes to spyware. The more internet users know about these programs, the more they want to sound the alarm and take steps to protect themselves." She also added this ominous note: "What is more alarming is the larger universe of people who have struggled with mysterious computer problems, but have no idea why. Internet users are increasingly frustrated and frightened that they are not in charge of their Internet experience."

Most of today's papers and online news sources used the Associated Press's report on the Pew survey. The AP's Anick Jesdanun didn't go with Mom, but instead used the case of Linda Parra, a technology consultant in Madison, Wis.: "Hit twice by spyware, after which all her Internet searches went to a rogue search engine rather than Google, she bought the safer Mac computer, installed two layers of firewalls and began switching off her broadband-connected machine when she's out. ... Parra also banned her daughters, ages 12 and 14, from game sites. 'All it takes is one click ... and you can end up going somewhere you don't want to go and getting a little bonus pack with your freebie,' she said."

The Dallas Morning News quoted Dave Cole at Internet security firm Symantec as saying spyware is one of the biggest issues the company is dealing with this year.

The St. Petersburg Times did an interview with Reed Freeman, chief privacy officer at Claria. That company, once known as Gator, took a licking in the public forum over its adware deliveries, but Freeman told the paper that the company has changed its practices:

"Consumers shouldn't have to go hunt for disclosure of that nature," he said. "Adware companies that are interested in broad consumer acceptance ought to be putting their disclosures in the download process as they are getting the product so they can make an informed decision about what they're getting."

Cells of Resistance

I used yesterday's column to provide some stories of cell phone chutzpah and some of the latest developments in society's attempts to deal with mobile technology etiquette.

Here's a letter I received from Monica Flores, a reader from Madrid, on a triple threat: "I live in Spain, where most cars have manual transmission. Last year, a law was passed banning the use of cell phones while driving. The only way you can talk on a cell phone while driving is using a hands-free set (using the car's sound system) or Bluetooth technology. Well, Spaniards being what they are, I still see a lot of people using cell phones while driving, in all sorts of vehicles and in all sorts of situations. But what really gets to me, and I don't know if this happens in the States, is seeing people driving, using a cell phone (obviously not hands-free) and smoking at the same time!"

Stick shift, a pack of reds and a cell phone. Readers, what kind of juggling acts are you seeing? I'm always interested in hearing your stories. In the interests of clarity, please limit your replies to 100 words or less. I enjoy reading the epics, but shorter is sweeter. Thanks!

I also reported yesterday on Chicago's ban on using cell phones without a headset while driving. That ban is scheduled to take effect Friday and police plan to enforce it starting Saturday. The city joins the District of Columbia, New York and New Jersey -- and now, Connecticut.

The Associated Press reported that Gov. M. Jodi Rell (R) signed a bill on July 1 that would require headsets. Violators face fines of up to $100 starting Oct. 1.

The Atlanta City Council, meanwhile, will take public comments at a meeting tonight on its proposed ban on driving and phoning, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported: "The legislation comes from southwest Atlanta Councilman Jim Maddox who said he is fed up with drivers who cause wrecks because they're distracted by their phones. His legislation would make use of a hand-held phone while driving a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000."

Also see the New York Times, which ran several articles on cell phones today. The best of the bunch is an analysis of the state of cell-phone etiquette that maps out the philosophical territory behind it: "In the great American debate about cell-phone etiquette, some of the early turf battles seem to be settled, with winners and losers falling into camps familiar from Western Civ classes. Movie theaters, funerals and libraries appear to have been carried by the cell Rousseauists, who believe the social contract forbids such things as shouting intimate details into a piece of plastic in a room full of strangers. Most public transportation systems, on the other hand, appear to belong to the cell Hobbesians, who believe that since life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short, there's no need to give the rider engrossed in her newspaper in the seat next to you a quiet commute. Restaurants constitute a middle ground, in a state of détente. Everyone knows it's rude to use a cell phone at dinner, but civilized people do it anyway."

High Tension, High Speed

I wrote a column last week that took issue with the Supreme Court's decision that cable companies do not have to open their networks to rival providers. Tomorrow I'll present a sample of the reader responses that I received, but today I'll highlight an article that ran on the Wall Street Journal about an alternative that is getting fresh attention:

"Google Inc., Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Hearst Corp. are investing about $100 million in Current Communications Group, a start-up that offers high-speed Internet connections over the power system, say people familiar with the situation. The move is expected to be announced today and comes as high-speed Internet usage in the U.S. is on the rise," the Journal reported. "Current Communications, of Germantown, Md., uses a technology that sends Internet signals over regular power lines. Because electricity travels at a lower frequency than the Internet signal, the two don't generally interfere. The service is channeled into homes through small modems, about the size of big cellphone chargers, that plug to an electrical outlet. The company offers its high-speed service in the Cincinnati area and is expected to use its new investment to expand."

More than one reader wrote in to offer this option as an alternative to the cable-phone duopoly. Maybe Google's golden touch will mark this technology's magic moment.

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