Retail giant Target revealed Thursday that criminals had gained access to sensitive data, including credit and debit card information, for 40 million shoppers. This is perhaps the worst thing Americans could learn as they finish up their holiday shopping. The threat to Americans' credit cards, let alone their feeling of personal security--and to nationwide consumer confidence--cannot be understated.
With the backdrop of this hacking attack, a new poll exploring details of American's attitudes about online privacy and security clearly shows that Americans want the federal government to do more to protect them and their personal data from hackers and identity thieves.
While issues concerning the Internet and high-tech space are often complex and multifaceted, it is important for policymakers and all of us who care about online privacy to take steps to ensure consumer trust in the Internet from government surveillance reforms to preventing and prosecuting identity theft.
Based on the survey, ID theft or a data breach has touched the majority of consumers in some way, nearly all view hacking as a serious threat. Four out of five say they are more worried the information they share will be hacked to cause harm or steal from them, compared to 16 percent who are more worried about online ads targeting them. The survey of 1,000 voters was conducted for my tech trade association by Benenson Strategy Group--the pollsters for Obama for America--and American Viewpoint -a top Republican polling firm.
For our policymakers and regulators, this is a wakeup call, which they cannot ignore.
When it comes to privacy, Washington has talked about taking action, but it's usually to curb the targeted online advertisements that pay for the services consumers enjoy. These targeted advertisements, driven by the same currents of anonymous data that make the Internet tick, are top of the agenda for certain lawmakers. Based on these results, however, Americans appear to feel differently, and after yet another large data breach revealed in yesterday's headlines, consumers are right.
Americans are acutely aware of the threat posed by hackers and ID thieves: Fifty-five percent say they or someone they know had their email account breached; 62 percent report receiving a suspicious email from someone likely due to that person's email being hacked. Alarmingly, half of those polled knew someone who had a financial account--or multiple accounts--breached online.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics just announced earlier this month that 16.6 million people were the victims of at least one incident of identity theft. That is 7 percent of all people over age 16 in the U.S. This is not a small problem.
Short of more government attention, consumers are taking steps to secure their personal data online. Some 73 percent have at some point chosen to not allow a service to remember their credit card information. And another 68 percent have adjusted their privacy settings to keep private information from falling into the wrong hands.
In other words, hacking and ID theft aren't problems because consumers aren't looking out for themselves. Hacking and ID theft are problems because regulators and policy makers haven't made this a priority. Legislation, rulemaking, enforcement, prosecution - every arm of the government can do more. Consumers need these resources and support to ensure their personal data is safe from criminals.
The government has the tools and the authority to help. Lately, we've seen some positive signs; most recently when FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez acknowledged this month that the government needs to do more to help consumers and businesses defend against fraudsters. The scale of the ID theft problem is indeed vast: identity thieves cost $24.7 billion in total losses last year. Acknowledging the scale of the problem is the first step. But it cannot be the last. Now is the time to take action.