How many times have you surfed to a new site, only to be asked for your name, birthday and gender? Did you enter the information that was requested? And if you did enter it, was it the real information or something you made up?
I don’t know about you, but I find sites which needlessly ask for personal information to be annoying. In fact, I will leave a site the moment a site requires me to enter anything which is not necessary to complete the transaction.
Yes, I do understand that when I apply for a credit card I need to enter my social security number, birthday and mother’s maiden name. In these instances, the purpose of the information is readily apparent – it is needed in order to obtain my credit record. This is normal and expected and thus I don’t even think about entering the data.
On the other hand, why does that free mail account require me to enter my birthday and gender? Worse yet, they want to know how much money I make! Why on earth would I want them this information? They obviously don’t need this data to create a free mailbox – so there must be some other purpose which is not obvious.
Of course, they want this data so they can build a profile about me, which in turn can be used to target advertising to me and other’s like me. My personal information is not likely to be used specifically – rather, it is grouped together and sold as a unit. For example, an advertiser might want to display a banner to thirty year old males who make $30,000 a year or more. By having this information, the free email account company can satisfy that need for their customers – the advertisers.
Ah, I hear you saying, who cares about privacy anyway? Well, you should. Let me give you an example. Let’s say you’ve been purchasing liquor over the internet. Now your wife divorces you and subpoenas that internet company for the records of your purchases. She could, in theory, use that information against you in a divorce case. The liquor receipts do not prove you were an alcoholic, but they could certainly be used to sway a jury that it is possible.
In the company that I work for, it is a serious offense to let other’s in the company find out how much money you make. In fact, you could be fired if you told another employee your salary. Yet you have to enter that same highly sensitive data to get a free email account!
There have also been quite a few stories in the news lately about accidental e-mailings of personal information to the wrong people. These mailings all seemed to have to do with medical records. I read one case where 5,000 people received other people’s medical history in their email box! I don’t know about you, but I don’t really want my medical records spread all over the planet!
What is the point of all of this? Well, you just need to be careful about giving out your personal information over the internet. You don’t really know who is at the other end of the telephone line, and you probably don’t have a good understanding of how that information is to be kept secure, how it is going to be used and why it is even needed in the first place.
So before you type in that personal data ask yourself a few questions.
- Do I really need this service? – When I am asked something personal that I would rather not give out, this is the first thing that I ask. Is this service really that important? For me, half the time the answer is no. If it is important, I usually find that I can pay some small fee for the same service without giving any personal data, and that’s what I usually wind up doing.
- What is this information likely to be used for? – This is obvious when I’m entering information to get a credit card, and not so obvious when I want a free email account. Remember, you never get something for nothing – there is always a price, even if it is well hidden. Find out what the site is going to use the information for before you enter it.
- Do I care if anyone else knows this information? – If the answer is yes (as it was for the amount of money that I make), then think a little harder about entering it into that web form. How embarrassed or damaged would you be if that data wound up posted on a thousand web sites?
Personally, I am least likely to give away personal information that is to be used for marketing purposes, no matter how much benefit I will gain for that data. It is not one of my primary goals in life to make it easier for advertisers to target me for their messages. In fact, I would rather not get their ads at all.
The key is simple. Before you enter that information into the web form, do a little research and find out what the data is going to be used for. Think for a moment about how you would feel if everyone knew, then decide for yourself if you still want to enter it.
That’s all I’ve got to say about that.