When it comes to privacy, we’re all just pretty little liars

More than 90 percent of people lie about their personal information online, according to a survey by Customer Commons. And who can blame them?

Don’t look now, Internet, but your pants are on fire.

It seems savvy Netizens have a very simple and effective strategy for dealing with Web sites or mobile apps that ask them for too much personal information: They lie.

A new survey by a public interest group called Customer Commons reveals that an astounding 92 percent of us are perfectly happy to fib, evade, decline, or otherwise prevaricate when asked to cough up information like our names, birthdates, email addresses, and friends.

common customer liars chart.png

The big data points here:

* Roughly 60 percent of survey respondents avoided giving out their real email address, street address, or birth date. That bumps up to more than 70 percent for phone numbers and friends lists.

* About a third have provided a fake name, email, birthday, or phone number to a site or app.

* Only about 25 percent say they withhold or fake information often or every time they create an account. Nearly 20 percent say they never lie or withhold information (unless, of course, they were lying when taking this survey).

The number one reason for faking it: Nearly 70 percent say they didn’t know the site or app well enough to share, or the site/app didn’t really need the information. About half said they were trying to keep their personal information out of the hands of marketers. And between 1 and 3 percent provided fake info to hide from family members or friends. (You know who you are.)

There’s good news for site and app providers too: Once people get comfortable with a site, about 40 percent of them will usually go back and correct the fake information they provided initially.

Customer Commons blogger Mary Hodder wrote:

The amazing thing is 92% hide, lie, refuse to install or click, some of the time. We surveyed 1704 people, and had an astonishing 95% completion rate for this survey. We also had 35% of these people writing comments in the “comment more” boxes at the bottom of the multiple choice answers. Also astonishingly high.

People expressed anger, cynicism, frustration. And they said overwhelmingly that the sites and services that ask for data DON’T NEED it.  Unless they have to get something shipped from a seller. But people don’t believe the sites. There is distrust.  The services have failed to enroll the people they want using their services that something necessary is happening, and the people who use the services are mad.

That’s the sugar; now for the salt. There are two big caveats about these numbers.

The survey was conducted using SurveyMonkey, which found respondents by blasting out emails to its pool of some 30 million users and luring them to fill out surveys, often by offering them a chance to win something. In other words, it’s not a tightly controlled, scientific, random selection survey you can use to make predictions about how the general populous thinks or acts. The people who filled out that survey more than likely had a special interest in privacy and an axe to grind. That makes them a wee bit different than your average Jane or Joe.

Hodder disagrees with me here; she says Customer Commons specifically asked SurveyMonkey to poll non-tech people. She says SurveyMonkey sent emails to 5,000 of its US members and cut the survey off when it achieved its target of at least 1500 responses. There was no inducement for filling it out, she adds.

The respondents also skew a bit toward relatively affluent college-educated men age 30 or older. Members of Generation Zuckerberg and the less Web-savvy public might have a different point of view on this. Hodder says they plan to release the raw data for the survey so OCD journalists like yours truly can pore over the differences, but it wasn’t available at blogtime.

Even if the actual number of people who lie or hide information is less than 92 percent, I'm sure it's still pretty darned high. Is there anyone out there who hasn’t lied on a Web form, or used a throwaway email address, at least once?

I see two big takeaways from this.

1. Most people do not implicitly trust Web sites and/or apps to treat their personal information with the respect and deference it deserves. And that’s a good thing – because you shouldn’t trust these sites and apps. Most of them have a vested financial interest in using and selling your data, one way or another.

2. People want control over their personal information. In these instances they can control it, and they do it by lying. In other cases, like Web tracking, they really can’t. Not without jumping through a lot of hoops, and even then not entirely.

This is the important bit: We should have control over our information. It should be easy. We shouldn’t be forced to lie in order to do it.

And that’s the truth.

Got a question about social media or privacy? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Visit his snarky, occasionally NSFW blog eSarcasm or follow him on Twitter: @tynanwrites. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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