Oversharing isn’t just a problem on Facebook and Twitter. A study conducted by the University of Cambridge and University College London suggests that many people answer questions on web forms even when they’re not marked as mandatory, and often cough up additional personal details that aren’t required at all.
The study asked 1,500 US internet users to provide details including their first name, data of birth, and financial expenditure and health information. Despite the form explicitly stating that these details weren’t needed (and even asking a question to confirm participants knew that not all fields were mandatory), the majority cheerfully volunteered information. More than half (57 per cent) gave their date of birth and 82 per cent shared health information, and 14 per cent offered unrequested information about what they had purchased in a question about when they last spent $100. In a follow-up survey, the majority of participants knew that they had shared personal details, but appeared unconcerned.
Sören Preibusch from the University of Cambridge Computer Lab points out in the press release announcing the study that this goes against the view many of us have about how people behave online:
The received wisdom is that filling these forms in is a nuisance and that users complete as little of them as possible to protect themselves and save time. Our study suggests that in fact people consistently and consciously disclose personal information, even when they know that doing so is optional.
Maintaining a privacy balance is hard enough given the rubbery policies of sites like Facebook. Voluntarily disclosing information that isn’t asked for makes the problem much worse. If you want to ensure your personal information stays safe, never give more information than you have to. Combine that with carefully checking privacy policies and using junk email addresses for one-time services and you’ll be well ahead of the pack. That doesn’t mean you can’t automate filling out forms that are actually useful; it just means staying alert.
au, security, science, privacy