Online Users Feel Safe, But Risky Behavior Abounds

New research also shows a divide between younger and older users in their security practices, including use of two-factor authentication and how often software updates are performed.

4 Min Read

Most home users and workers consider their devices "sufficiently secure," but more than a third never check for updates to their security software and more than half regularly connect to unprotected Wi-Fi networks, according to a new report from the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA).

The research also shows a divide between younger users and older users of technology. A bit more than a third of people were working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic, but far more younger people — 47% of 18- to 34-year-olds — make up the remote-working population. Most remote employees, however, did not take additional steps to secure their devices, such as by using two-factor authentication (2FA) and updating security software.

The report, based on a survey of 1,000 Americans, suggests workers and home users have too much confidence in how well they have secured their devices against online threats, says Sylvia Layton, chief operating officer at the NCSA, adding that the older demographic seemed to be more cautious and more vigilant with their data when they use connected devices.

"People tend to feel more confident in their security practices than they are," she says. "We often assume that the younger generation will take more action to protect their data, but it turns out that older people seem to be a little bit more cautious than the [overall] population."

The survey, which comes at the end of October's annual National Cybersecurity Awareness month, found about eight in 10 people felt moderately to highly confident in the security of their data and devices. Companies have made securing their remote workers a priority, with more than three-quarters of firms embarking on improving remote working and more than half of security teams worried about the level of visibility they have into the security state of their company's distributed workforce, a separate July survey found.

For the most part, 18- to 34-year-olds tend to have better security practices than 50- to 75-year-olds — with 89% of the younger group at least somewhat likely to use 2FA compared with 70% of older people, the NCSA reports. In addition, 83% of younger people check their software updates at least every two to three weeks compared with 63% of older people.

Yet much of the shortfalls in security came with work-from-home habits, with only 39% of all workers using 2FA on all their devices and 38% regularly updating their antivirus, anti-malware, and firewall software, the survey found.

"There is room for additional training, and it needs to be consistent, and it needs to be on a regular basis. It's not a one-and-done type of thing," Layton says. "In a sense, everyone is their own IT guy at home. We cannot call the IT guy at work anymore and say, 'My computer is having problems.'" 

Those work-from-home habits also show older and younger people focus on different types of security. More younger users (46%) enable 2FA on their devices, for example. Yet only a third of them update their anti-malware and firewall software compared with almost half of users aged 50 to 75 years old. And younger users are almost twice as likely to use public Wi-Fi hotspots compared with older users.

The responses support the idea that younger users are just more likely to use new technology, be it the latest devices, new security measures, or ubiquitous wireless, says Layton.

"The younger generation grew up in the digital age, and they have a higher level of comfort in using technology that that older generation might not."

For organizations, the survey could inform training content for different generations of employees. Older workers may need to be introduced to the latest technologies, while younger workers will likely have to be taught to be more cognizant of the risks.

In addition, companies should make sure they are focused on creating a secure infrastructure for their distributed workforce, Layton says. 

"Always investing in the right technology upfront is always better than waiting until you have an incident, or a hack, or a ransomware attack down the road, which will cost you more money than if you had invested in the best solutions," she says.

About the Author(s)

Robert Lemos, Contributing Writer

Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET, Dark Reading, MIT's Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline Journalism (Online) in 2003 for coverage of the Blaster worm. Crunches numbers on various trends using Python and R. Recent reports include analyses of the shortage in cybersecurity workers and annual vulnerability trends.

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