Amid high-profile political cyberattacks, Americans are losing confidence in their own cybersecurity.
Just under half of Americans — 49 percent — think their personal information is less secure than it was five years ago, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center. They're only slightly more optimistic about the government's abilities.
Twenty-eight percent of Americans are "not confident at all" that the federal government can keep their personal information safe. And when the Democratic National Committee is hacked and Yahoo says 1 billion of its users were affected by a hack, who can blame them? “Despite their broad concerns about the safety of their personal information and their long-standing sense that they have lost control over their personal data, relatively few Americans are engaging in the digital best practices recommended by experts in the field,” report co-author Kenneth Olmstead said in a statement.
“Even those users who are highly educated – or who themselves have been victim to some type of personal data breach – tend to adopt a ‘path of least resistance’ approach to managing their online passwords and accounts.” The survey of 1,040 adults, conducted in spring 2016, found that 64 percent of Americans had personally experienced a major data breach. For 16 percent of respondents, that meant that someone took over their email accounts. For 13 percent, it was social media accounts.
That might be because Americans aren't taking the necessary steps to protect their information. Thirty-nine percent of respondents said they used the same or similar passwords across their online accounts. Forty-one percent said they had shared one of their passwords with a friend or family member.
Older Americans are more worried about cybersecurity. Fifty-eight percent of respondents over 50 thought their information had become less safe in the past five years, compared to 41 percent of respondents between ages 18 and 49. But 69 percent of adults said they don't worry about how secure their passwords are at all.
Americans’ experiences with data security
The survey asked about seven different types of identity or data theft that Americans might be exposed to and found that several are particularly widespread. Some 41% of Americans have learned they were the victims of a data breach by seeing fraudulent charges on their credit or debit cards. Around one-third (35%) of Americans have received notices that some sort of sensitive personal information – like an account number – had been compromised, and 15% have received notices that their social security number, specifically, had potentially fallen into the wrong hands.
Roughly half of Americans think their personal data are less secure compared with five years ago. At a broader level, roughly half (49%) of all Americans feel their personal information is less secure than it was five years ago. Around one-third of the public (31%) feels that their data are equally secure now compared with five years ago, while around one-in-five (18%) feel that their data are actually more secure today.
Password management and mobile security
Most Americans use memorization or pen and paper as their primary method of keeping track of their online passwords. When asked about different ways they might keep track of their online passwords, fully 86% of internet users report that they keep track of them in their heads. Many security professionals recommend password management software as the best way to create and store complex passwords. But this survey finds that the vast majority of Americans keep track of their passwords using much more traditional methods – specifically, by memorizing them or by writing them down on a piece of paper.
When asked about different ways they might keep track of their online passwords, fully 86% of internet users report that they keep track of them in their heads. Indeed, 65% report that memorization is the method they rely on the most (or is the only method they use) to keep track of their passwords. Around half of online adults (49%) say they keep the passwords to at least some of their online accounts written down on a piece of paper – with 18% saying that this is the method they rely on most heavily. In total, just over eight-in-ten online adults (84%) say that they primarily keep track of their passwords by either memorizing them or writing them down.
More than one-quarter of smartphone owners do not use a screen lock, and many fail to regularly update the apps or operating system on their phones. As smartphones have become increasingly prevalent – and as users engage in a wide range of sensitive behaviors on their phones – these devices have become the latest front in the battle over digital security.
Public Wi-Fi networks
Along with users’ passwords and the physical devices they carry, the networks their devices are connected to offer an additional avenue for potential cyberattacks. Public Wi-Fi networks (such as those in cafes, libraries or other public spaces) are an especially common target for hackers. Just over half of internet users utilize public Wi-Fi networks, including for tasks like online banking or e-commerce.
When asked about use of public Wi-Fi networks, just over half of internet users (54%) report that they do access Wi-Fi networks in public places. Younger adults are especially likely to do this: 69% of internet users ages 18 to 29 use public Wi-Fi, compared with 54% of those ages 30 to 49, 51% of those ages 50 to 64 and 33% of those 65 and older.