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March 14, 2019

Think Twice -- Privacy and Web Forms
Alexandra Andrews

Internet Privacy is a major concern. Many websites are demanding users fill out questionnaires. In fact, the web form is the only contact for many sites as a cost saving method. There is no phone number, no person, only the virtual web form. Are you trusting to divine providence?

Ask yourself - Is it safe? A danger sign - there is no other way to contact the website in question aside from the form. For instance:
- No contact phone number is listed.
- There is a phone number, but no one answers - (
- There is no support email.
- There is a support email, but no one answers.

If a total stranger walked up to you on the street, handed you a form to fill out asking for your personal information, how safe would you feel giving it to them? Would you fill out the form containing personal information such as:
- Your name
- Age
- Home address
- Business address
- Credit card number
- Social security number
- Telephone numbers
- Email address
- Birthday
- Contacts

Questions to ask before using a web form:
- Why is this website collecting my personal data?
- Where is the completed information stored?
- How is this information protected?
- Will I receive a response in a timely manner?
- Is there a real person reading the filled in form?
- What are my options if no one responds?

Students and Academics
Many academic institutions use website services such as:
- But what happens if the student in question cannot turn in the assignment because the website fails/crashes?
- Students may experience no timely reply to the contact help form.
- There is no phone number.
- Will the site in question accept responsibility for the student’s failing grade?
- How will the site make amends?

Remember you cannot trust the privacy claims of the site. One example is selling their users info to any Tom, Dick and Harry, as in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. [1, 2, 3]

Before you fill out the form and essentially sell yourself to prospective researchers, matchmakers, or anyone asking for personal data - always, always, always read their privacy policies and their statements of goals. Ask yourself, Why does this site want my personal information?

It is no secret that there is a high failure rate in websites. Boom to bust is the normal cycle. Very often, when a site goes belly up, the only thing of value is the database of users. What will happen to their database if the company is sold, merged, or sells off its assets (the database). Naturally, the creditors try to sell that database to the highest bidder. One example, a database consisting of children under 12 years old was on the auction block.

Remember, there is no policing of websites. Many sites and apps that sell the personal data of users have fancy seals of approval and such, but very often, all that they mean is that someone paid extra to be able to put them there -- nice little decorations. Toto, pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. Take advantage of the private/incognito browsing option. Empty your browser cache and clear your history files every night.

Once you've shared your personal data, there is no way to call it back. Not only that any data shared on the web is there forever. That means you have an obligation to yourself. Many of us who have been around for a few years simply don't tell the truth or if we need to be truthful in order to gain usable information we give the minimum that must be included. The following are a few suggested answers to some questions asked by forms.

Your name
This should be OK. Another idea is to have a special web name.

Why is the site asking this question? Why should you give your correct age? Make up an age. If worse comes to worst, you can correct this information later.

Home or Business address:
Why is this question being asked? Why the need to snoop? Is the website in question sending you information to your physical address? Consider getting a post office box.

Credit card number:
Have you set up a throw away credit card for Internet use? This is a card with a specific financial limit. If someone steals the card’s information, they cannot go on a mad spending splurge. Social security number Why would you need to give this number? Why give out the last four digits? Leave this blank. If the site or app will not work without digits – make up the numbers. If there is a valid need for the numbers you will be contacted for a correction. [4]

Telephone number:
A good idea is to have a throw away phone number to use on the web. You can set up an online phone number with Google Voice or use a secondary phone with prepaid minutes. [5]

Email address:
A dedicated web email address is a good idea. Your email address is for sale. Harvesters create email database lists and then rent or sell them. One example is, Roger Stone's wife seeks legal defense donations using Newt Gingrich's email list. [6] Once your email address is collected, it is gone forever. If attacked by an email bomb, delete the web email address or have it point to /dev/null. Time to get a new web email account.

Is the site going to buy presents, and throw a party for you? Birthdays are used as the delimiter for databases. Make up a birthday. If you have a password file, add what date your birthday is for each website visited? You can always change this information.

Does the site or app demand access to your contacts? For instance, is using Whatsapp acceptable for lawyers and doctors? [7] Another idea is to have a web email account that contains no contacts.

Remember! If it sounds too good to be true - it probably is. A miracle cure for cancer would not be a secret. Be cautious and careful. What seems obvious on the surface, may be dangerous in the doing.

Links of interest:
1. Facebook and Cambridge Analytica: What You Need to Know as Fallout Widens
2. Cambridge Analytica and the Pinky Promise
3. Facebook’s Data Deals Are Under Criminal Investigation
4. my Social Security / Security and Protection
5. Phone Companies Pinky Swear They'll Stop Selling Your Location Data, For Real This Time
6. Roger Stone's wife seeks legal defense donations using Newt Gingrich's email list
7. The 3rd Party Doctrine: Or Why Lawyers May Not Ethically Be Able To Use Whatsapp

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