We as internet users can empower ourselves with respect to our private data by becoming the source for that data and selling it ourselves. Several startups are testing software to help us, offering different degrees of anonymization. However any data scientist will tell you that this anonymity can be broken with a couple minutes of analysis. So now the question is, do users understand this, and more importantly, do they care?
Personal data generates trillions of dollars per year in revenue, but the individuals who generate that data are only rewarded with the smallest trinkets. Their data is collected by 3rd parties, and is stored, sold and used outside of their control. So now the question is, how can we as users empower ourselves to take back control of our data, and with it our portion of the revenue generated by it?
As is almost always the case with novel ideas and technological frontiers, startups are leading the way. The first step in empowering ourselves is to be able to access our own data. Reclaiming our data from all of the websites and retailers who have collected it is definitely impractical, probably impossible, and maybe even illegal. But collecting it ourselves at least allows us to use it for our own purposes. For example, if I have a list of all products I bought in the last week, it doesn’t take that information away from Amazon, but it does let me give or sell it to someone else if I want to. The grass-roots “quantified self” movement has provided us with apps such as Moves, Sleep As Android, App Usage Tracker, etc., which record where you went, what you did there, how often you work out, how much and how well you sleep, and a whole host of other aspects that you might or might not want to be aware of. While this is a step in the right direction, one of the problems is that each app only targets one or a few aspects of you, and doesn’t necessarily grant you full freedom outside the app for using or accessing that data.
One startup called Personal is helping users aggregate all this information in a so-called “personal data vault.” Their concept is to empower you to provide your data to third parties of your choosing, in order to make your internet experience a more personalized one. For example, if I allow a website to access the information that I pay for a gym membership (but don’t ever go), I might be able to get rid of ads which are trying to convince me to sign up. Another aspect they can help you with is automatically filling in forms for you through a payed add-on app. However, the company is not interested in helping users sell their data, as they see this as being counterproductive since that inevitably will mess with the privacy of users.
Recently a whole flood of startups aimed at marketing personal data have made it through a founding round or two, opened their doors and announced betas. These are the likes of DataCoup, Handshake, Data Fairplay, all of which have a similar concept, which is to allow you sell your own data through them to whoever out there is interested. All of these startups also offer different levels of anonymity, where your name, email address, phone number, etc. can be removed before sale. As we mentioned previously, the more anonymous your data is, the less it is worth. But anonymising protects you, as often the information you are selling may reveal far more about you than you are aware of.
Here’s the problem. As any data scientist will tell you, data of this kind can’t be anonymized. In the same way that your web browser can be uniquely identified by how you configured it, your personal information identifies you even without your name on it, just like your fingerprint does. For example, 87% of individuals in the US can be identified by their birthdate, sex and ZIP code. Furthermore, anyone who has access to other sources of information about you, often even public records, can easily find out who you are based on similarities between the public data sets and your anonymously purchased data.
Selling your data, anonymized or not, is selling someone information about yourself, and not just information about some anonymous individual. In other words, when it comes to the personal data economy, empowerment currently comes at the cost of privacy. Since all of the enablers here are startups in a beta phase, it is still unclear if this is a trade people want to make given the risks. The questions however, are now more focused on whether users understand the risks involved in selling their own “anonymized” data, and if they care.
Let us know what you think in the comments! Will you be selling your data?