Pimply kids in a basement: Do stereotypes drive cyber fears?

Irrational fears of stereotypical hackers are driving Americans to support potentially repressive regulations, according to a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Stereotypes in Hollywood movies and news media are largely based on people's fears of technology they don't understand, Molly Sauter, a researcher at MIT's Center for Civic Media, said at Austin's South by Southwest conference on Tuesday.

Now those misconceptions are leading to laws that could impact political speech or online privacy, she said.

"It's ordinary people who are caught up in this because the mythical shadowy hacker doesn't exist," Sauter argued. While are sometimes committed online, the public debate is based too often on unrealistic views, she said.

Federal officials have warned that cyberattacks could overtake terrorism as the greatest threat to U.S. national security and Congress is consider sweeping cybersecurity legislation that would give law enforcement officials more authority to protect private Internet networks.

The chief sponsor of the Senate legislation, Homeland Security Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., says the U.S. can't afford to wait until there are more concrete examples of cyberattacks.

"We've got an opportunity to fix this problem before we're attacked," he told National Journal in a recent interview. "I hope and pray that we deal with it and we don't run around frantically after an attack to close loopholes we can close now."