PhotoConsumers frequently complain that they're always being asked for personal information they'd rather not disclose -- like their phone number, email address or birthdate.

Well, there's a simple way to deal with that. It's called lying and a survey finds it's also a very popular strategy. Researchers said Americans routinely hide their personal details and intentionally falsify information when asked for it by websites, services and mobile app providers.

The findings suggest that many people are skeptical of the need for services to collect personal data, leading people to lie, click away or decline app downloads. According to the survey, people engage in these behaviors to create a sense of privacy and control over their personal information.

Afraid and angry

“Before we did the survey, we’d heard from data aggregators that something like 50% of their data might be incorrect. The survey showed that much higher rates of obscuring data is happening," said study co-author Mary Hodder. "People are afraid and angry, as reflected in their comments to the survey, and they are doing the only thing they can to protect themselves: hiding, lying or withdrawing."

Hodder is on the board of directors of Customer Commons, the California-based non-profit that conducted the study.

The study found that some people will accurately represent themselves only when online services show a clear upside. Otherwise, people don’t want to reveal more than is necessary when all they want to do is download apps, watch videos, shop or engage in social networking.

Key findings in the report include:

  • Only 8.5 percent of respondents always accurately disclose personal information.

  • As many as 70% of respondents regularly withhold at least some personal data.

  • Many respondents lie about various line items as a strategy to protect their privacy. For example, 34.2% intentionally provided an incorrect phone number, and 13.8% provided incorrect employment information.

The concept of trust was raised in 22% of the written responses explaining why people hide their information. Some examples include:

  • “I cannot trust a random website”

  • “I do not want spam and do not want to expose others to spam. I also don't know how that information could be used or if the people running the site are trustworthy.”

  • “If I know why info is needed then I might provide, otherwise no way”   

People are afraid or distrustful of sites, services and phone apps that request their personal data. They withhold or falsify information because they do not believe the sites need their data, and because they do not want to disclose information that might lead to spamming or other intrusions. Moreover, the techniques that people employ to preserve their sense of privacy online are largely improvised, informed by fear, and based on their subjective evaluation of entities that solicit personal information.

Customer Commons describes itself as "a not-for-profit working to restore the balance of power, respect and trust between individuals and the organizations that serve them, especially in the online world." Funding for the study came from CommerceNet, a not-for-profit research institute.

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