A Billion-Dollar Boondoggle?
Just spent a few minutes leafing through the latest edition of Consumer Reports, which this month features advice on helping people stay safe online. The magazine references a study saying that over the past two years, at-home computer users invested more than $2.6 billion in software to protect their computers.
Nothing shocking there, right? One need only look at the annual earnings of companies like Symantec to know that it's not a bad time to be in the computer security business.
What really made me catch my breath was the revelation that consumers also spent about $9 billion for computer repairs and parts due to damage inflicted by viruses and spyware. I wonder if this estimate takes into account the money people spent on simply buying new computers when the old one gets so infested with junk that it becomes unusable. Given that computer repair technicians charge around $100 an hour, in many cases total replacement may be the more reasonable course.
Now, sure, maybe a portion of that multibillion dollar repair bill should go to a certain company in Redmond. And maybe the security software companies themselves are partly to blame for selling us programs that don't work all the time. For example, the dirty little secret of the antivirus industry has always been that because the software generally relies on "signatures" or snippets of known viruses in order to detect them, each time there's a big new virus outbreak about 10 percent of the industry's customers invariably serve as the guinea pigs for the rest of them. This shortcoming is especially dangerous given the increase in targeted attacks against corporations here and abroad.
Fundamental flaws aside, the sad truth is that while computer security software can be intimidating for some people, many folks do not take the time to learn how to properly configure it. My guess is that in a great many cases, people are driven to purchase security software after a virus, worm or spyware package has already taken up residence on their machines. Whether most of the software out there is up to dealing with today's nastier threats is fodder for another debate, but in the end, no piece of software is going to protect users from the biggest threat to computer security -- themselves.
For the record, I am a relatively frequent buyer of software. Not counting games, I probably spent at least $300 last year on maybe a dozen or so software programs, but I think only a couple of them were security-related.
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