By Annie Allison
Privacy is the topic du-jour this summer. Ever since Edward Snowden’s revelations that the NSA has been prying into our private lives, the nation has been on heightened alert for data-snatchers. Adding insult to injury, data-snooping isn’t just a game for big government. Some, if not most, of our favorite brands, icons and industries are grabbing our data unbeknownst to us – and turning that data into profit.
Musician/entrepreneur Jay-Z recently earned a bad rap after being caught making more than just “Nickels and Dimes” off his fans’ personal data. Advocacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate an app created for Jay-Z and Samsung that was used to distribute the rapper’s latest LP. In return for the album, users had to grant Samsung access to their personal information, including, among other things, their age, Facebook and Twitter accounts, geolocation data, phone calls, and networks. An estimated 1.2 million people downloaded the app.
EPIC claims Samsung “deprived users of meaningful choice regarding the collection of their data.” Samsung defended itself by arguing that the quantity and quality of data their app collects did not go beyond the industry standard.
This “standard” data-grab is something that has gone largely unregulated and has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry.
Given that our personal data is driving such a booming industry, why aren’t consumers scrambling for a piece of that seemingly lucrative pie? Why not monetize it? Why not supply it at a cost? Similar to how a cow is priced per part, why not price out our personal data and use the already existing market for data to our own advantage?
NYU grad student Frederico Zannier recently accepted this challenge. For months, Zannier meticulously recorded his online activity and proceeded to set up a Kickstarter account where anyone could purchase his personal data for the low, low price of $2.00 a day. That data included web page views, browser tabs, mouse movement, geolocation, webcam photos, and application usage. In just 30 days, Zanier earned a little over $2700.
He’s hoping his experiment will change the way consumers and marketers value personal data. “It might sound crazy,” says Zannier, “but so is giving all of our data away for free.”
Arguably, novelty played a role in Zannier’s cash grab, even though he’s not the first to dream up such an idea. The problem is that your data alone isn’t worth much to marketers—they want to buy in bulk. In fact, according to Financial Times (FT), most individual consumer profile information sells for less than a dollar. FT even goes so far as to offer a calculator to add up just how much, or rather, how little your individual data is worth.
According to the FT calculator, my personal data is worth roughly $0.94. But, unlike the parts of a cow or other consumables that are strictly priced as one-offs, your personal data can be repackaged and sold over and over again. That $.94 per use isn’t looking so bad after all!
One counter argument to those like Zannier who express their frustration with giving away their data for free is that although people are giving up more of their data than ever before, they are also getting value back—potentially even more value than they’ve bargained for.
Take, for example, the experience of Andreas Weigend, director of Stanford University’s Social Data Lab. On a recent trip abroad, Weigend awoke early to catch his flight from Shanghai when his Google Now app informed him that his flight was delayed. The app, which scours a person’s Gmail account and calendar as well as major databases, had spotted the glitch in his travel plans. When Weigand finally boarded his flight, everyone else on the plane had been waiting for hours.
Statistician Patrick Wolf, who studies social networks at Univeristy College, London, explains that there’s so much more data available than ever before that it’s becoming increasingly easy to tailor that data to the individual. “Statistically, strength comes from pooling people together, but then the icing on the cake is when you individualize the findings.”
Still, proponents of compensating consumers for their data argue that the transparent monetization of personal data isn’t just “All About the Benjamins,” but rather a free-market solution to improve data privacy for all.
“When individuals sell data themselves, they disrupt the market for data sold about them by third parties,” says Marc Guildimann, CEO of data broker Enliken.
“[H]elping consumers and businesses transact with data is part of a pragmatic solution to privacy. While it might be in vogue to say personal data isn’t worth anything or the only viable solutions to privacy are legislation, DNT or cookie-blocking, there are more efficient outcomes that can be achieved via open and transparent marketplaces. Competition in a free market for data will be swift, with the individual making quick work of companies who have been selling information about us all for too long. After all, no one has better, more up-to-date and complete data about you than you.” (http://qz.com/94760/the-free-market-actually-can-help-us-control-our-privacy/)
Before the year is over, this dream may come closer to becoming full-blown reality. Thanks to startup Reputation.com, consumers may actually be able to take a more active role in monetizing their personal data. Reputation.com cofounder and CEO Michael Fertik says his company is preparing to launch a feature that lets users offer up their personal data to marketers in return for discounts and other perks. It’s not cold, hard cash, but it’s a start. Could it be that one day we, to paraphrase Jay-Z, can have “99 Problems,” but the privacy of our personal data won’t be one?