Researchers just discovered why you share your private information online

Decades ago most people didn’t think twice about happily typing in their email, home address, telephone number, and other private information for any website or app that asked for such data.

Since then, a whole lot has changed on the internet and everyone is justifiably more skeptical about providing personal data online.

Still, despite such suspicions, tons of people continue to absent-mindedly give up their private data. Why is this still happening so frequently? According to an interesting new study from American Associates, the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, how an online data form is structured can make all the difference.

In more succinct terms, researchers have identified two distinct strategies that appear to be quite effective at “manipulating” or swaying users into providing more personal information. 

The first of these tricks is to ask for users’ information in ascending privacy-intrusion order. This refers to initially asking for less important information and with each additional question moving on to more private data.

The idea here is that if a user has already filled out the first half of a sign-up or contact form, they’ll be that much more likely to follow through and finish the whole thing despite perhaps a privacy concern regarding one of the last questions.

The second strategy is to place each new request for more information on consecutive, but separate web pages. If a user must click through multiple new pages to finish a series of information requests, they’ll be more likely to finish the task in comparison to just one web page filled with numerous requests.

“The objective was to demonstrate that we are able to cause smartphone and PC users of online services to disclose more information by measuring the likelihood that they sign-up for a service simply by manipulating the way information items (name, address, email) were presented,” says Prof. Lior Fink, head of the BGU Behavioral Information Technologies (BIT) Lab and a member of the Department of Industrial Management and Engineering, in a release.

“We found that both manipulations independently increased the likelihood of sign-up and conversion,” he adds. “The ascending privacy intrusion manipulation increased sign-up by 35% and the multiple-page manipulation increased sign-up by 55%.”

To reach these conclusions, the study authors worked in unison with Rewire, a local online bank based in Tel Aviv, Israel. This allowed them to examine and analyze the data sharing decisions of 2,054 prospective Rewire users as they were asked to provide their names, addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses.

“The general public and regulators should be made aware of these vulnerabilities since it is so easy to capture more private information, despite their privacy concerns,” concludes lead researcher Naama Ilany-Tzur, a student at BGU. “

At the same time, this research has important marketing implications as legitimate companies and marketers are always seeking to maximize the amount of data they can capture on individuals and the optimal way to achieve this.”

No one tends to think about their email address or telephone number as all that “valuable.” But, the fact remains that these bits of information are indeed highly sought after by many on the internet, and not always for particularly noble endeavors.

No matter how an online form is structured or designed, always think twice before providing any of your private information.

The full study was presented at the 41st International Conference on Information Systems (ICIS 2020.