Where you set your own boundaries for information exposure is an entirely personal choice, but here’s a quick overview of what you should consider in making your choices. If a site requires personal information, you should recognize the differences in these types of data:
- Information that an organization has to collect before you can use its website: Many services have to collect some information from you in order for them to interact with you. Online shopping websites, for instance, need to have your name and address, among other data, for financial transactions. They need to know certain things about your computer, such as your IP address (this stands for Internet protocol, which is a unique identifier assigned to devices, such as your computer, that connect with the Internet) to route information to and from you. They check which Internet browser you use (such as Internet Explorer or Firefox) and whether you use a Windows or Mac operating system (and which version) to best display their Web pages on your monitor. If you’ve been to the site before, they may have put a cookie on your computer that identifies you when you visit again and provides your preferred experience automatically.
- Information that isn’t essential but that you’re comfortable sharing: A company may ask how you heard about its site, or it may ask you to rate products so they can make other recommendations, for example. This exchange of information is relatively harmless, unless the company sells your preferences to others to spam you (send you unsolicited offers). Still, providing these pieces of information shouldn’t be mandatory, as they aren’t required to complete a transaction or interaction, in most cases.
- Information that you aren’t comfortable sharing: For example, if you’re buying a book and the store asks for your gender and income bracket, that’s highly personal information that isn’t required to complete the transaction. If this information is optional, don’t provide it. If it isn’t optional, you shouldn’t do business with that site. Period.