In a digital economy, information is the strongest and most widely accepted currency – and buying and selling data are routine practices. Unfortunately for most of us, the only people who tend to profit from these practices are the tech companies, internet and telecoms service providers, developers, and marketing networks that freely trade – among themselves – in data about their subscribers and consumers.
Often – and despite our best efforts to curtail these activities through the use of ad blockers, Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), encrypted messaging, and other tactics – it’s impossible to completely eliminate the leakage of personal information to these industry players that seek to profit from it.
So the question has to be asked: Should people sell their own data directly, make some gains for themselves, and cut out the middleman?
Data Scraping for Profit
For many years now, commercial organizations have been making direct and indirect profits through a practice known as data scraping. On an industrial scale, this involves using automated programs to extract large amounts of information from websites, which may then be stored on enterprise servers as files and spreadsheets for analysis. It’s variously referred to as data harvesting, web harvesting, web scraping, web data extraction, or screen scraping.
Some of this information may be sold on to interested third parties or used by the organization that collects it, to inform business decisions, marketing campaigns, or for other purposes. It’s a digital extension of the age-old principle that “Knowledge equals Power” – which also carries the condition that “Knowledge equals Money.”
Data scraping and the conversion of information into monetary value have been the foundation for success of household names like Google, Facebook, and other online enterprises whose free and paid resources or services are subsidized by a trade in the personal and business information of the people who use them.
Subscribers and consumers often aren’t even aware that by making an online transaction or signing up for a service, they may in effect be selling data about themselves to not only the parent company or website they’re dealing with, but their affiliates and supply chain partners, as well.
Learning from Cambridge Analytica
The dangers of selling data or revealing it to unreliable friends have been highlighted in recent months, with incidents like the Cambridge Analytica scandal. This prime example of data abuse involved an affiliate of Facebook (the data analytics contractor, Cambridge Analytica) which compromised the personal information of millions of users, worldwide. It also implicated the social media giant in a shady scheme to subvert electoral processes in the UK and United States, tarnishing Facebook’s public image and reputation.
Brittany Kaiser, a data rights advocate and former employee of Cambridge Analytica, offers an interesting perspective on this state of affairs in suggesting that:
“Privacy doesn’t exist in a post-Facebook crisis era. The digital assets that you produce every day are your own human value. You should be able to own them and you should be able to share in the monetization of that.”
In this way, users of social media and other online services could at least win back some measure of control over when and how their information is traded for financial purposes.
Some Precedents in Selling Data
Selling data as an option for private individuals was floated as an idea as far back as the 1980s, when loyalty schemes and rewards programs offered consumers compensation in the form of coupons, special discounts, and other incentives, in exchange for what in effect was access to information about their spending habits.
With the evolution of digital technology the idea of personal information as a unit of exchange really took off, most commonly as a way of paying for “free” online services, access to websites or digital platforms, and more recently for subsidizing free software and mobile apps.
Behind the scenes, virtually all of these resources gather data from their consumers / subscribers which compensates the providers for the gift of free service – and then some.
In the year 2000, Chris Downs, CEO of Normally, conducted an experiment in which he gathered together all the information he could get from his utility services, bank, credit card companies, credit reference companies, and any supermarket he had loyalty points with. Downs put all of this up for auction on eBay, selling data about his life for the princely sum of about $180.
Fast forward to 2014, and an entrepreneur named Matt Hogan set up Datacoup, a start-up company enabling consumers to sell their data directly to advertisers. Anonymized data capturing moments of the online lives of existing and potential customers could earn participants in the scheme $10 a month.
Selling Data – An Evolving Market
The examples above are admittedly the very humble beginnings of a market that has yet to see anyone making profits from selling data of their own reach anything like the multi-billion dollar levels of trade between tech players and advertising networks. But opportunities for personal trade in information and new methods of “monetizing” that data are continuing to evolve.
Google Opinion Rewards provides an app which prompts users to answer questions about businesses or websites they’ve visited, based on location data, and personal characteristics such as your age range, income bracket, or level of education. From this feedback, members of the Rewards scheme may receive credits that can be used to buy apps and other items from the Play Store.
With offices in Switzerland, Singapore, and Hong Kong, the Datum Network provides a place where users can share or sell their data from platforms like Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter, on their own terms. Members of the network have access to controls and configuration options enabling them to specify who can use their information, and what is actually done with it.
There’s a Datum app which is based on blockchain technology, with tools for users to back up their data on an encrypted and secure network. Payment is in DAT tokens (a form of cryptocurrency), with which users can purchase information for themselves, from other sources.
It’s still early days, but selling data is clearly a viable option for private citizens looking to take more control of their lives online – and it’s a market that looks set to grow and develop, as more individuals warm to the idea.