Most people know that by using our laptops, phones and tablets, we're creating a wealth of data about ourselves. By connecting to social networks, using e-commerce, and enjoying many forms of entertainment, we record information about us as consumers - and corporations are buying and selling this information.

In Part One of her look into the market value of our personal data, Kathryn Lawrence asks whether in the future we'll be able to profit off our own invisible data stream. And in Part Two, she'll look at other, more tangible, human byproducts...

What is your personal data?

In order to understand how much your data is worth, you first have to figure out what that data is.
Data brokers pay for three types of data: volunteered data (such as social media profiles), observed data (such as location data from cell phones), and inferred data (the combination of volunteered and observed data that can supposedly predict your future behavior as a consumer).

But they can also find plenty of your personal data out for free, from public records, governmental databases, and other publicly available sources:

  • Identification data (such as your name, address, email address)
  • Sensitive data (such as birthdays and social security numbers)
  • Court and public record data (such as criminal records and marriage licenses)
  • Home and neighborhood data (such as real estate listings)
  • Vehicle data (such as vehicle registrations and insurance)
  • General interest data (such as charitable donations)
  • Financial data (such as credit reports)
  • Travel data (such as frequent flyer information)
  • Purchase behavior data (such as what you buy and how you pay for it)
  • Health data (such as over-the-counter drug purchases and “ailment and prescription online search propensity”)

So the next time you end up on WebMD after Googling the symptoms of a common cold and managing to convince yourself it’s actually brain cancer, remember that a data broker somewhere is also laughing at your hypochondria.

And what are they using it for? “People search products,” which can be used to locate individuals for various reasons, are the least profitable (about a $52 million dollar industry as of 2012).

Then there are “risk mitigation products,” which use personal data for fraud detection and credit information – this industry is worth over $177 million.

And finally, marketing products, the largest industry trading our personal data (worth $196 million) which everyone should be familiar with – they need to know who you are, where you live, and what you like, to make effective advertisements and get you to buy more stuff!

What is your data worth?

This dense cloud of personal data that we generate over our lifetimes is worth surprisingly little. According to a 2015 study by Western Digital, a data storage company, 5,000 consumers valued their data on average at £3,241 (that’s $4,165.33 today).

Those 5,000 consumers would be crushed to know that all together their personal data would be worth about $2.50. According to a Financial Times report in 2013, 1,000 people’s personal data collectively costs $0.50, and an individual’s age, gender, and location is worth only approximately $0.0005 per person.

For more specific information, such as the names of people who suffer from a particular disease, an individual name could cost up to $0.30.

Of course wherever a legitimate market exists, there is also a black market, and the value of data such as health records, identification, and credit card info on the dark web is much higher.

Login and password data for premium content services, such as Netflix, is worth about as much as a whole person’s personal data on the open market: $0.55 (and who hasn’t given away that information for free at least once?)

Stolen credit or debit card numbers fetch $20-35, which seems small for the amount of havoc one could wreak with that information. Health records on the dark web can go for $50 apiece and online banking login information depends on how much money is in your account, but can retail between $190-$1,000.00.

Can you sell your data yourself?

Obviously most people won’t ruin their own lives by selling their own credit card or banking info on the dark web, but a service does already exist to allow you to personally profit off of legal data sales.

Datacoup is the “world’s first personal data marketplace,” which will help you collect and sell your data for cash.

According to several sources, you can earn about $8 per month selling your personal data via Datacoup, and currently the service is only available in the US. You must install certain applications to allow Datacoup to monitor and collect this data, which people who are already trying to gain control over their personal data may be averse to.

There are also two notable examples of individuals who have taken a more radical approach to selling their own personal data: a Dutch student named Shawn Buckles, and a Brooklyn-based engineer named Federico Zannier.

From May 6th to June 5th of 2013, Zannier opened a Kickstarter called “A bite of Me” with a goal of $500, to sell a painstakingly collected arrangement of personal data.

He states on the Kickstarter’s campaign page:

“Since February, I have been recording all of my online activity (the HTML pages I have visited, the position of the mouse pointer, a screenshot of what I was looking at, a webcam image of me looking at my computer, my GPS location and a log of the apps that I was using)... I'm selling this data for $2 a day. If more people do the same, I'm thinking marketers could just pay us directly for our data. It might sound crazy, but so is giving all our data away for free.”

Geolocation data visualization by Federico Zannier via Kickstarter

For $2, backers would receive one day’s worth of this data; $25 for a week of his data and access to his custom tools to collect and analyze their own data – and for a pledge of $200 or more, access to the entire data archive, 7GB of information including:

“50,000 files, which include some 2,800 websites I visited; 20,500 screen shots; 17,000 webcam images; a recording of my mouse pointer movements; my GPS location; an application log of 23,000 lines of text; an iPhone app and a Chrome Extension for tracking your own activity; a suite of tools for analyzing the data (which includes 50 bash, python and R scripts).”

He got 213 backers who pledged $2,733 in total, and has not supplied any further updates on his personal website (which now belongs to a Japanese SIM card marketing company) or – a now-defunct site that previously hosted visualizations of his personal data.

Over $2,000 is not a bad take compared to Shawn Buckles’ profit: he set up a “Data for sale” website with an online auctioning system to sell his personal data in April of 2014.

Tech publication The Next Web was the highest bidder and paid him €350 for his personal profile, location records, train records, personal calendar, email conversations, online conversations, thoughts, consumer preferences, and browsing history.

The Next Web planned to use his data to illustrate the issue of privacy at their 2014 The Next Web Conference, and Buckles donated the profit for “selling his data soul” to Bits For Freedom, a Dutch digital rights association. All of it seems like a noble demonstration, but since he included information such as email and online conversations with others, he has admitted the project lost him some friendships.

Buckles also released a pamphlet on digital privacy containing some food for thought, as we contemplate what it means to create, monetize, and define ourselves by our data:

“Privacy is the right to live unobserved and undisturbed, and to decide for oneself what information one shares and with whom. Privacy is based upon a personal enviroment [sic] in which we can seclude ourselves. Privacy is essential in shaping one's identity.

“But privacy is gone. We gave it up, for no other reason but the thought that it's useless. Why don't we protect our rights? Our ancestors fought fiercely for them -because they were oppressed.

“‘I've got nothing to hide’

"This is a fallacy. What will happen if a Hitler takes power tomorrow? Nobody'd be safe. He wouldn't only know our location, networks and believes, also he could pretty accurately predict our behavioural patterns and our patterns of resistance. To flee or hide would be impossible. We'd be powerless. Whether we have something to hide is defined by the context in which we live.

Their [sic] will come a day we need the right to privacy. Maybe that day's today. Are we free? Do we live in peace?
That depends on who you regard as your friend. And more importantely [sic]: how your friends regard you.”

While we live in a society where we are constantly interconnected by technology, our personal data choices also impact those around us.

It seems ironic that part of Buckles’ privacy manifesto warns against the imprisonment of technology and links to Edward Snowden’s TED talk on “How we take back the internet”, while espousing the dangers of governmental control of our personal data - but through this project he has not only participated in his own self-commodification, but involved unwilling participants as well.

Where the personal meets the political in the monetization of data seems to be an always shifting line, and the old adage of “if you can’t beam ‘em, join ‘em” rings hollow but true in both Buckles and Zannier’s examples.

As people gain more awareness of what data is being constantly collected about them, hopefully we move towards a future in which people are more empowered and enriched (in knowledge and capital) by their personal data than enslaved by the combination of technology and global capitalism that produces this increasingly profitable market.

In Part Two, we’ll explore other human byproducts that you can sell yourself in the future today: from bodily fluids that are normally disposed of to your personal genetic code – and a woman who incorporated her entire existence.