Survey: Despite Knowing the Risks, Young Adults Are Reckless About Online Security

Ah, the folly of youth. According to a new survey that looks at young adults and their understanding of Internet security, an overwhelming majority of people between 18 and 27 are aware of the dangers of not protecting data but don't do much to deal with it. At least 73 percent say they're worried about online fraud or identity theft, but 71 percent of those surveyed say they're not especially careful about policing their financial data, social networking accounts, and other passwords. "The irony is that the most tech-savvy generation is the one playing Russian roulette—the one that knows the risk, but still does the risky behavior," says Sam Curry, chief technology officer at RSA, an IT security firm that sponsored the survey.

The numbers aren't a total surprise. A study last year found that a quarter of Americans teenagers have "sexted," either receiving or sending text messages of a sexual character—not exactly model behavior for an Internet user. And NEWSWEEK's Nick Summers wrote last fall about his own bad password habits.

But such dirty little habits send security researcher into conniptions because it's hard to cover up personal information once it's on the Internet. "If everything I did from 16 on was cataloged, we probably wouldn't be having this conversation right now," jokes Robert Siciliano, a security consultant who works with RSA. Where the major risk for most internet users involves phishing schemes and other scams, young adults face a threat to their employability. Companies increasingly check out applicants' online profiles, and stories abound of people whose employers have withdrawn offers because of something a potential employee has posted online. Based on the survey results, it's not enough to freak any of these young guns out.

A few of the survey's more interesting tidbits:

  • Nine out of 10 respondents say they're linked to people they either don't know or don't know well on social-networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn.
  • Three quarters fear identity theft, but 57 percent can't be bothered to use services to prevent, mostly because of the cost. And 64 percent say they've already had their identity stolen, been hacked, or lost credit cards or sensitive data.
  • Two out of three have put content online that is vulgar or sexual—although just 4 percent admit to posting photo or video—or discussed drugs or alcohol. One third are worried they might have trouble finding a job because of it.
  • 56 percent don't bother logging out of accounts on their computers, saying it's just too much hassle to sign back in.

The survey was based on interviews with 1,000 subjects and conducted by TRU Research. Results will be available Tuesday on RSA's site.

Update: Here's news about an interesting study released last week by the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania. The study's finding match up with the concerns cited in the RSA survey: researchers found that young respondents cared just as much as older ones about privacy—and believed they had protections they actually don't.