Why Your Personal Data Is Worth Anywhere From 20 Cents To $2,000

Image courtesy of Marc Smith via Flickr

The devil is after your soul. To clarify, by the devil we mean data brokers, and by soul, we mean startling amounts of your personal information.

By now, it’s clear that your trace on the Internet is more substantial than just bread crumbs, and valuable enough not to be left to the birds. The information is collected carefully, bundled, and sold  — without you ever making a cent.

Data mining: How it works

Your information (including name, location, age, gender, interests, relationship status, employment and more) is valuable to corporations and advertisers, as it can be used in a variety of ways to point relevant products and services in your direction.

The people who collect this wealth of information are called data brokers. Some of the data is scoured from public documents, but some of it is also bought from — you guessed it — those social media websites you hate to love.

From websites like Facebook, for example, intimate information like personality details, religious affiliation, and sexual preference can be garnered and sold. And let’s not forget cookies, which track your website history for targeting purposes.

How much is my personal data worth?

The value of your data depends on many factors. The profiles compiled by data brokers are anonymized data, compiled and sold to marketers in large bundles.

Anonymized data isn’t worth too much, from a personal perspective. The Financial Times offers a tool that lets you figure out just how little it actually is: typically in the 20 cent range, but up to almost $2.00 if you pose as a multiple-vehicle and property owning bank executive that is expecting a child, engaged to be married, and has every possible interest imaginable.

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Before you become upset at how little worth the intimate details of your life amount to in the eyes of marketers, consider that it equates more to the worth of a demographic lump than you as an individual.

On the other hand, individual data — the stand-alone kind with your name attached to it — is certainly worth much more. When considering the comparable profit of big companies, your Facebook data, for example, is worth hundreds, according to one (now unavailable) online tool.

Another existing tool estimates that Facebook owes this writer $210.

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The Atlantic estimates that though the cost of data profiles is small, because the Internet advertising ecosystem supports hundreds of billions of dollars worth of economic activity, the value of each Internet user is over $1,200. 

Can I sell my data?

Much fuss has been made over the lack of informed consent that comes with data mining, the conditions for which are often veiled in complex terms of agreement and made difficult to opt out of.

But those willing to strike a bargain with the devil, so to speak, may find that their digital souls can be used as leverage to get some profit.

While the Kickstarter auction of one man’s data earned him well over $2,000, such novelty approaches aren’t typically repeatable. But if you want a practical way to take financial control of your data, here’s who you can go to:

  • Handshake: an app that “allows you to negotiate a price for your personal data directly with the companies that want to buy it.” If you put in the time and data, you could make thousands a year.
  • Datacoup: a startup that will pay you a monthly sum for API gathering from your social media profiles and personal accounts
  • Meeco: a service that allows you to only share the data you want to — and keep the rest private — in exchange for deals from brands you like and trust
  • Citizenme: an app that lets you control your digital footprint, in the hopes of letting you sell bits of data to advertisers of your choice in the future

The takeaway

Currently, billions of people have little to no control over their data online. In exchange for free services, users forfeit personal information without  transparency as to what happens with it, or who profits off of it.

Some companies want to give users control back, and even get them their share of the return. In the future, dynamics could swing in this direction.

Because studies show users are typically unwilling to pay to give up data — but are also unwilling to pay to withhold it — letting users realize their value and offering them financial incentives may be just the flint needed for this idea to catch flame.

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Jennifer Markert