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Perceptions of computer viruses: a cross-cultural assessment

Mary Jones, Kirk Arnett, Jeung-Tai Eddie Tang, Nian-Shing Chen
Computers & Security, 12 (1993) 191-197
ISSN 0167-4046
December 1993

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M. C. Jones1*, K. P. Arnett1, J.-T. E. Tang2 and N.-S. Chen3
1 College of Business and Industry, Misissippi State University, Misissippi State, MS 39762, USA
2 Yunlin Institute of Technology, Taiwan
3 National Sun Yat-sen University, Kaohsiung, Taiwan
* Address correspondence to: Mary C. Jones, Drawer MG, College of Business and Industry, Mississippi State University, Mississippi State, MS 39762, USA.

This paper provides an empirical assessment of cross-cultural differences in perceptions of computer viruses. Results of a survey of 642 business students from the USA and Taiwan reveal both similarities and differences between the two groups. Variables on which the two groups differ include computer experience, exposure to computer viruses, and educational background. The survey provides measures of general perceptions and awareness levels of viruses as well as beliefs about personal susceptibility and about the effect of viruses on the workplace.

Keywords: Computer viruses, Computing environments, Business school computing environments.

1. Introduction

Computer viruses pose a worldwide threat to the security of most computer operations today. Viruses have been discovered on systems in the USA and in many other countries, such as Israel, China, Germany, Sweden, England, Iceland, Malta, and Bulgaria [3, 4, 6, 8, 11]. For example, one study states that approximately one-half of the microcomputers in China have been struck by computer viruses [11]. The most recent evidence of this threat is the international alert to the Michelangelo virus.

The threat, as well as the origin, of viruses is international in nature. For example, the MusicBug virus is thought to have originated in Taiwan [13]. One report now indicates that the Michelangelo virus may have entered Europe on a hard disk imported from Taiwan [18]. “Only 25 percent of the viruses appear to have US origins” according to a statement to the House Judiciary Committee on Criminal Justice by David Steng of the National Computer Security Association [5].

Viruses have proliferated on college campuses in many countries, and several of the better-known viruses are products of college students [3, 10]. For example, the BRAIN virus surfaced at the University of Delaware in October 1987 and was followed one month later by LeHigh University’s COMMAND.COM virus. The first strains of the Jerusalem virus were found at Israel’s Hebrew University. It was also at a university (Cornell) that Robert Morris Jr’s Internet worm began and infected thousands of computers on the Internet in only a few hours [12].

The impact of infection of computer systems in industry is less known - partly because of the “history of non-disclosure” of security breaches in the private sector [3]. Although it is believed that viruses pose a threat to industry that is similar to the threat posed in universities, it is difficult to obtain evidence of the extent to which viruses have spread in organizational settings. Most reports chronicle virus attacks in the military and other public sector environments. Therefore, it is difficult to assess the effectiveness of protection/containment measures that organizations employ.

Organizational policy about virus containment is crucial. While it is difficult to assess the extent of policy in practice, it is thought that the scope of policies varies among firms. “The easy solution to the problem (of viruses) is to buy anti-virus software and install and use it properly” [1]. However, policy should go beyond this to include determination of critical resources, backup and recovery procedures, education of users, and assessment of security measures to prevent virus entry [2, 7, 10, 15, 17].

A major key to effective containment lies in the actions, attitudes, and perceptions of employees toward viruses. Because many future private sector business employees come from business colleges in universities, education of students about viruses is vital. This is true not only in the USA, but also worldwide. The purpose of this paper is to perform a cross-cultural assessment of student perceptions of computer viruses; students from Taiwan and the USA are included.

2. Background

While Silicon Valley in the USA is one of the largest and oldest concentrations of computer technology in the world, reports indicate that the computer market is rapidly growing in other parts of the world. Southeast Asia has seen double-digit growth rates in computer spending in recent years [14]. Taiwan heavily contributes to this growth, with three computer firms among Datamation’s Top Asian 25 [14] and among the top 100 firms worldwide [16]. Furthermore, installation of computers in Taiwan is growing at a rate of 44% per year [14]. In the PC market alone, two of the Taiwanese firms in the Top Asian 25 experienced growth of almost 30% in 1990 [141.

Unfortunately, along with computer growth in Taiwan came computer viruses [10]. It seems reasonable that perceptions of computer viruses in a rapidly growing computer environment may differ from perceptions in the relatively stable USA computer environment. There are varying reports on the extent of viruses in Taiwan, yet it is certain that they are a problem [10].

In order to obtain measures of relevant variables, a survey was administered to convenient samples of (1) 429 undergraduate and graduate students in introductory required business courses at the National Sun Yat-sen University in Taiwan and (2) 213 undergraduate and graduate students in nine introductory required business courses in the College of Business and Industry at Mississippi State University. Students in these two universities follow similar courses of study with respect to the functional areas of business. The two schools also have similar introductory computing courses. In addition, students do not receive extensive virus educational material in either school.

3. Student characteristics

Differences in perceptions between Taiwanese and US subjects may be due to several factors, including differences in educational background, computer experience, and exposure to computer viruses. A profile of respondents is provided in Table 1.

Academic majors in this study include accounting, economics, finance, management, management information systems (MISS), and marketing. Because of the advanced academic standing requirements for most business courses, the majority of the students were sophomores, juniors, or seniors.

TABLE 1. Profile of respondent characteristics

 Response category% of US respondentsa% of Taiwanese respondentsa
MajorAccounting11.7322.84
Economics1.021.86
Finance9.6913.29
Management14.8019.58
MIS4.5926.57
Marketing25.002.80
Other32.65b0.00
ClassificationFreshman0.000.93
Sophomore7.1036.83
Junior31.1023.54
Senior54.1035.90
Graduate student7.700.23
Years of computer useLess than 110.718.39
1-216.3339.39
2-322.4527.27
3-416.8418.18
Over 433.676.53
Number of classes requiring use of a computer01.5314.92
18.1625.41
222.4520.75
319.9017.95
413.274.90
Over 433.6713.99
Years known about virusesNever heard of7.650.93
Less than 112.763.96
1-221.4328.44
2-326.5334.27
3-416.3319.81
Over 415.3111.66
Have found a virusYes27.0472.96
No72.9621.45

TABLE 1. Profile of respondent characteristics

a Percentages may not sum to 100% due to missing data.

b Primarily general business administration majors.

While both groups have reasonably heavy exposure to computers, the US subjects have more computer experience than do the Taiwanese subjects in terms of both years of use and number of classes. One-third (33.67%) of the US subjects have over four years of computer experience compared to less than one-tenth (6.53%) of the Taiwanese subjects.

In addition, 33.67% of the US subjects have taken more than four classes requiring the use of a computer compared to 13.99% of the Taiwanese subjects. This may be partially due to the US college accreditation requirement that computers be integrated into all functional areas of business [9].

A somewhat larger percentage of US subjects than Taiwanese subjects have known about viruses for more than four years (15.31% vs. 11.66%). However, 7.65% of the US subjects are completely unfamiliar with viruses whereas less than 1% (0.93%) of the Taiwancse subjects are completely unfamiliar with viruses. While the majority of US subjects have been exposed to viruses longer than Taiwanese subjects, there are more US subjects who are completely unfamiliar with viruses.

One influence on exposure to viruses may come from the media. Large outbreaks, such as the Internet worm at Cornell or the Michelangelo virus, are reported in the news media. Therefore, students in both countries with even relatively little computer experience may have some knowledge/perception of viruses due to the media.

With respect to actual experience, only 27.04% of the US subjects have been exposed to viruses as compared to 72.96% of the Taiwanese subjects. Therefore, Taiwanese subjects may have less educational experience with viruses, yet they have more actual experience with viruses than US subjects.

4. Perceptions of computer viruses

Other survey questions were employed to gain a sense of students’ knowledge and perceptions concerning viruses. The perceptions addressed in this study can be classified into three categories: (1) perceptions of personal susceptibility to viruses (X1-X4); (2) general perceptions of viruses (X5-X8); and (3) perceptions of viruses in the workplace (X9-X11) (see Table 2). Analysis was performed to determine if there are differences between US and Taiwanese subjects with respect to these variables. A profile of average responses and p-values is provided in Table 2.

TABLE 2. Cross-cultural differences in responses: profile of average responsesa

VariableUSTaiwanp-value
X1Necessity of scanning disks1.633.480.0000
X2Possibility of viruses on shrink-wrapped disks2.352.460.3236
X3Possibility of viruses on disks from vendors3.102.170.0000
X4Possibility of viruses on disks from individuals3.833.020.0000
X5Extent of potential damage from viruses2.682.410.0264
X6Difficulty of detecting viruses2.842.620.0030
X7Difficulty of removing viruses3.552.760.0584
X8Extent of accidental virus transmission1.710.670.0001
X9Role of staff in protection from viruses3.011.600.0001
x10Role of staff in removing viruses3.281.730.0001
X11Effect of viruses on the workplace2.652.300.0000

aResponse scales range from 1 to 6 where 1 = strongly disagree and 6 = strongly agree.

Statistically significant differences exist between the US and Taiwanese respondents at the a = 0.05 level for all of the dependent variables, except for the perception of the possibility of viruses on shrink-wrapped disks and the perception of the difficulty of removing viruses. Taiwanese respondents scan disks more frequently than do US respondents; however, Taiwanese respondents are less aware of the possibility of viruses on disks from vendors and from individuals than are US respondents.

While the Taiwanese subjects scan disks more often than do US subjects, they are less aware of potential virus sources. Interestingly, US subjects are more aware of where they may get computer viruses, yet they seem to have a false sense of personal immunity. Hence US subjects scan less frequently. Taiwanese subjects, on the other hand, appear to be less concerned about virus sources than they are about the possibility of infection.

There are also significant differences between the two groups with respect to damage caused by viruses. The US subjects are more aware of the extent and effect of viral damage than are the Taiwanese subjects. In addition, US subjects believe that detection is more difficult than do Taiwanese subjects. This is understandable given that US subjects practice less detection (e.g., scanning) than do Taiwanese subjects.

US subjects also believe to a greater extent than Taiwanese subjects that virus transmission is largely accidental. In other words, with the exception of the originator, most viruses are transmitted either unknowingly or accidentally, not intentionally. However, the mean responses (1.71 and 0.67, respectively) indicate that neither group is fully aware of the accidental nature of most virus transmission.

Two questions in the survey address the role of the computer staff in the protection from and removal of viruses. US subjects believe that computer staff should take an active role in both protection and removal, while Taiwanese subjects do not. Finally, the US subjects are more aware of the damaging effect of viruses on the workplace than are the Taiwanese subjects.

5. Summary and discussion

US subjects seem to feel less personal susceptibility to viruses than do Taiwanese subjects as evidenced by scanning activity (X1). However, US subjects express stronger beliefs than Taiwanese subjects about the possibility of getting a computer virus from vendors or individuals. Although US subjects seem more aware of where viruses may originate, they are less active in seeking to protect their own resources from damage.

With regard to general perceptions of viruses, US subjects are more aware of the potential damage viruses can cause. They are also more aware that virus transmission is largely accidental. However, US subjects believe more strongly than Taiwanese subjects that viruses are difficult to detect and remove. The majority of Taiwanese subjects reported having found at least one virus on a disk as opposed to less than 30% of the US subjects. Therefore, the Taiwanese subjects are more familiar with what detection and removal entails.

Finally, US and Taiwanese subjects differ with respect to the perception of viruses in the workplace. US subjects are more aware of the potential extent of damage in the workplace. This may be partially explained by the saturation of the US with computers. Although computer installation is growing in Taiwan, usage has not reached the level of US usage. Virtually every US business uses a computer for some activity, and where there are computers there is the potential for viruses. Thus, viruses may be a more prevalent topic of general conversation in the US than in Taiwan.

US subjects also believe to a larger extent than Taiwanese subjects that the computer staff should be responsible for the protection from and removal of viruses. The US perception of computer staff responsibility may be partly explained by the historic precedent of the staff role in university computer labs [9]. Typically, staff are viewed as being able to answer questions and help with problems. Therefore, students may perceive staff as having a responsibility for protection from or removal of viruses.

In general, US students more clearly perceive the effect of computer viruses in the workplace than do Taiwancse subjects. US students also understand the damage that viruses can cause, and they understand that viruses are often transmitted accidentally. However, Taiwanese students more clearly understand that anyone using a computer can contract a computer virus, whereas US students seem to feel immune.

Knowledge alone will not stop the spread of computer viruses. Without scanning (or monitoring) it is impossible to detect and remove viruses, and therefore impossible to contain or prevent viruses. These students will soon be part of the workplace, and will carry their perceptions and actions with them. If US students are not made aware that they are personally susceptible to computer viruses, then soon the US private sector will be filled with employees who do not take viruses seriously. This may translate to substantial financial losses due to data and files that are damaged or completely destroyed by computer viruses.

The Taiwanese workplace may be relatively better off in comparison to the US situation. If employees take the problem of viruses seriously, and act to contain or prevent them, then the Taiwanese workplace will be relatively safe from damage. Again, this translates to revenues; in this case, money not lost due to damaged or destroyed data.

In the global marketplace of today’s world, US companies cannot afford to fall behind in the battle against computer viruses. Therefore, it is important to academic educational systems as well as organizational training programs to ensure that students and employees alike correctly perceive the danger posed by these viruses.

References

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Mary C. Jones is an Assistant Professor of Management at Mississippi State University. Her research interests include systems analysis and design, information technology, and simulation modeling.

Kirk P. Arnett is an Associate Professor of Information Systems at Mississippi State University. His research interests include infusion of information technology, human factors, and systems analysis and design.

Jeung-Tai Eddie Tang is an Assistant Professor of Management Information Systems at the Yunlin Institute of Technology in Taiwan. His current research interests include planning of management information systems, end-user computing, and managing microcomputer technology.

Nian-Shing Chen is an Associate Professor of Information Management at Sun Yat-Sen University, Taiwan. His research interests include distributed systems, computer networks, computer viruses, and expert systems.

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