Survey reveals tech security generation gap

Analyst questions results that show young tech-savvy users are less concerned with security -- and more prone to breaches -- than older users

Young, tech-savvy people pay substantially less attention to online security risks and are therefore more likely to experience security problems than older people.

That's the not very surprising findings of a survey conducted by ZoneAlarm, a unit of security vendor Check Point Software Technologies.

ZoneAlarm polled 1,245 young and older tech users from the U.S, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany and Australia to find generational differences in attitudes towards computer security.

About 40% of the participants were between 18- and 35-years-old while about 20% were between 56- and 65-years-old. The rest ranged in age from 36 to 55.

The survey found was that respondents aged 18 to 25 generally tend to overestimate their knowledge about computer security, spend less than other age groups on security products and do less than baby Boomers to protect themselves online.

While more than one out of three Baby Boomers say admit being "very concerned" about security and privacy issues, only one in five younger users felt the same.

Similarly, only 31% of the younger respondents ranked security as the most important tech consideration, compared to 58% of Baby Boomers.

The survey also found that the younger respondents were less likely than the older ones to pay for antivirus products, third-party firewalls or integrated security suites. In general, older Internet users appeared to be more concerned about email-borne attacks while younger users were concerned about threats emanating from social media channels and file-sharing networks.

About 63% of 18- to 25-year-olds professed to be knowledgeable about security issues compared to about 59% of Baby Boomers. However, when it came to actual security incidents, about 50% of Gen Y respondents said they had experienced virus infections and other security breaches in the last two years, compared to 42% of Baby Boomers.

"Gen Y people are sophisticated, technically savvy online users," said Bari Abdul vice president and head of ZoneAlarm. "We expected them to have figured out security. It really came us a surprise to us is that Baby Boomers are doing better than Gen Y."

One of the reasons could be simply that younger users tend to place a lower priority on security than Baby Boomers, Bari said.

Most of the Gen Y participants in the survey said that entertainment and social media interactions are more important issues for them than security, he said. The younger people often turn off security tools such as anti-virus products and firewalls if they believe the tools are hampering online gaming or social media activities.

Bari said IT executives should be aware that many younger employees bring their security beliefs to work as well, he said. Companies should also make sure to secure the increasing social networking use of the latest generation of workers, he added.

Securosis analyst Rich Mogull, questioned the validity of such surveys and the conclusions reached by ZoneAlarm.

"User behavior studies are usually skewed [depending on] the questions asked," he said, adding that survey questions often don't correlate to real behavior, or don't tie to behavior that reflects real security risks.

For instance, Mogull said that the lack of paid-for security tool doesn't necessarily indicate that a user isn't security conscious. Some purchased products don't "provide much, if any, more real world value that free offerings," he said.

He added that security technologies like firewalls are built into and turned on by default in every operating system, he said.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan, or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

Read more about security in Computerworld's Security Topic Center.

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