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What Would You Give Away for a Cookie?

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Whether or not you think privacy exists (and plenty of people think it’s dead), you probably value it. Think about it: What would you do if a stranger came up to you on the street and asked, “Hi. Can I have your name, address, mother’s maiden name and last four digits of your Social Security number?”

Easy answer: Absolutely not.

Well, what if he finished his pitch with, “I’ll give you a cookie.” That changes things, doesn’t it?

It really does. In a completely unscientific study, performance artist Risa Puno offered cookies to people at a Brooklyn arts festival, as long as they gave her some information in return. Mashable and ProPublica published the results of her experiment:

  • 380 New Yorkers gave up personal information for a cookie (for the record, the cookies looked delicious, were decorated as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter icons and came in flavors like “Chocolate Chili Fleur de Sel” and “Pink Pistachio Peppercorn”)
  • Of those 380 people, 117 (31%) let Puno take their fingerprints
  • 162 (43%) gave what they said were the last four digits of their Social Security numbers
  • more than half let Puno take their pictures

She didn’t tell them why she wanted the info. She merely showed them her terms of service (a page of legalese typed up in minuscule font, just like everything else out there), when they questioned her demands.

The information people so willingly gave her is often used for security questions — in other words, ways to hack into an account if you don’t have the password — and in the Mashable/ProPublica story, Puno said she was shocked at people’s willingness to divulge their data. Some people even offered more than she asked for, which she found “baffling.”

Puno’s project represents a common exchange: A company has something you want, usually a service of some sort, so you fill out a registration form to access it. You might not care or think about what they’re doing with that information, because all you want is to get what you came for.

As you give your information away to more people, you have to increase your sensitivity to security breaches. Given how many companies have your data, it will inevitably be compromised, so keep an eye on your online, financial and credit accounts for signs of abuse. You can use your credit reports and credit scores as fraud monitors, and you can access them for free. Go to AnnualCreditReport.com for free credit reports, and you can get two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com.

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