Americans More Anxious About All Kinds of Security: Survey

After holding steady for nearly five years, Americans expressed higher levels of anxiety about almost every security topic, including physical and online threats.

Americans are more concerned than ever about all aspects of their personal security, online and offline, but it's not entirely clear why, according to a recent survey from Unisys.

Approximately half of the respondents polled were seriously concerned about viruses, spam and the safety of online shopping, according the latest Unisys Security Index survey. The biannual survey, released May 4, gauges consumer opinion on four areas of security: financial, Internet, national and personal safety.

The total United States Unisys Security Index jumped 40 points to 154, a 20 percent increase since the last survey, which was conducted in August 2010. In contrast, the index numbers have remained relatively stable since Unisys began doing the study twice a year in 2007. For three years, the total index was between 145 and 151, which researchers categorized as "moderate concern." The current index is at a level that researchers marked as "serious concern."

While researchers were surprised by the sudden upswing in the Security Index score, what was especially striking was the fact that all four areas showed an increase, Patricia Titus, chief information security officer of Unisys, told eWEEK.

"We had three stable years, and then a dip, and then a rise to levels higher than what it's ever been before," Titus said.

While national security could be easily explained by current events and the ongoing military campaigns, there wasn't a ready explanation for the increase in the health care segment, Titus said. The overall dramatic increase can't be attributed "to any one certain thing," Titus said.

Financial and national security were comfortably in the "seriously concerned" territory, with individual index scores of 174 and 176, respectively. Internet and personal security had similar index scores, 154 and 153, respectively, and were at "moderately concerned" levels.

The across-the-board increases might have more to do with the fact that mobile devices have made people "better connected," according to Titus. More and more people carry smartphones and tablets, and many people who can't afford a full computer or laptop are just opting for a smartphone with a data plan. Mobile devices give people the opportunity to be connected to see what's happening in the world, and to "ingest more information," according to Titus.

The Stuxnet worm, the discovery of printer cartridge bombs, the attempted bombing in Time Square and the unrest in Middle East have shifted the public attention to security over the past year. Financial security likely increased because of concerns about inflation and recession as well as worrying about e-commerce transactions, according to Titus.

It wasn't clear whether the increased levels of concern would translate to any actual changes in behavior. Titus was a little concerned about the fact that increasing numbers of people were using mobile devices, but the industry as a whole hadn't "really thought about security on those devices." As people use mobile devices more, they face bigger risks, such as the recent Verizon outage making it impossible for people who have abandoned landlines to make any phone calls, Titus said.

People don't always think about security in relation to mobile devices because they are so used to thinking about security in the context of a computer. "We missed the opportunity on that one," Titus said.

People are "used" to having services, like online games, which aren't critical, but when they aren't available, people notice. "An awful lot of things are happening that are getting people's attention," Titus said, such as the Amazon outage and the Sony data breach.

"Our way of life is getting disrupted by cyber-security attacks," Titus said.

Titus expressed interest in conducting the survey in the aftermath of the operation that killed Osama bin Laden to see how the index scores would look "right now."

The index was calculated based on random telephone surveys of 1,005 people in mid-February; the Lieberman Research Group conducted the poll.