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Scared witless

CNET's Charles Cooper says Bush and Kerry should pay close attention to the findings of a poll on personal security.

On the campaign trail, George Bush and John Kerry are talking up their security bonafides, but whose pitch is the public buying? In less than two weeks, we'll learn the final answer. In the meantime, the candidates might want to study the findings of a recent CNET poll.

In late summer, we hooked up with Harris Interactive to find out how people perceive the state of their personal security. The idea was to find out what regular folks are thinking. Are they encouraged by what they're seeing? Do they think that technology might improve their sense of well-being?

The Bush administration has repeatedly claimed successes in its war on terror. But our poll turned up a sharp disconnect between the people and the official line.

Despite all the bombast, Americans don't have faith in the government's ability to improve the state of their personal security. What's more, the poll suggests that our nation is still very much on pins and needles. Not only were the respondents deeply worried about the future, but they dunned the government for failing to make better use of existing technologies to bolster homeland defenses.

Despite all the bombast, Americans don't have faith in the government's ability to improve the state of their personal security.
Then came the shocker: The American public is so freaked out that a majority is willing to give up certain traditional guarantees of privacy if that will safeguard security. Same goes for the legalization of more aggressive interrogation methods.

Thomas Jefferson must be turning in his grave.

So it goes, at a time when only 15 percent of those polled believe they are safer today than they were a year ago, and just 20 percent say they will be safer in the future.

Most of the people polled, nonetheless, continue to view technology as something of a magic bullet. The apparent sentiment is that if only Uncle Sam could figure out how to more effectively integrate new hardware and software, things would improve.

That might not come any time soon. The Bush administration pays lip service to cyberdefense but clearly has its attention elsewhere. When the Department of Homeland Security was established, something else was eliminated: the position of senior adviser to the president on cybersecurity. The government was later forced to create the National Cyber Security Division. But that never amounted to much, because the position of director was effectively neutered.

Amit Yoran, who was plucked from Symantec to run the organization a year ago, remained a figurehead. He never received the support needed to make things happen and then resigned a few weeks ago--the third cyberczar to pack it up for the same reason. No matter. The administration's public-relations handlers remained sanguine, because they could at least promote the appearance that work was ongoing. And in an election season, that's what really matters.

So you wonder why the public has a case of the willies.