Profiting from your privacy – outrageous or innovative

While the prevailing public narrative advocates privacy, the cracks are easy to spot. The governments approach privacy hypocritically, some play pro-privacy when it comes to business and electoral pitches, but turn a blind eye to privacy when it comes to whatever government agencies want to know about their citizens. The citizenry is also far from a privacy caring monolith.

The latest Facebook and Cambridge Analytica data shenanigans have only inspired 9 percent of users to part their ways with the social media giant. Many of them may return and it will be back to business as usual. Others will just shift their attention to other social media platforms, which frankly are envying Facebook in their data grab and monetization. However, the bigger news is that more than 90 percent of Facebook users do not care. They may be totally fine with the handling of their privacy.

Actual research shows that more than half of the people are quite happy to open up their private life online, and even happier to gobble up details on the private life of others. There is a whole field of research on this phenomenon called the “privacy paradox”, and it seems to be part of the human nature. Being a privacy scientist myself, I would add that the numbers are likely underestimates. Privacy is notoriously difficult to investigate and direct inquiry just does not give you the correct picture. Most will answer yes, if asked whether they care about their privacy, but will spend it away nevertheless.

No wonder then that most of us are complicit in profiting from our data. The big players have sinned on our personal data sales again and again for decades. Their play is always the same – two steps forward squeezing our privacy evermore, then one step back – apologizing and pretending to care. Shuffle and repeat. Behind the scenes, data businesses are thriving. Our data is the profit maker for data brokers, for retailers, for healthcare, for social platforms. For everyone, frankly.

My own research shows that at least 40 percent of people are interested to profit from their data themselves. Some already tried. In 2000 the British man Chris Downs sold all his personal data on eBay for £150 ($200). In 2014 the Dutch man Shawn Buckles has repeated this for €350 ($400). While these have been publicity stunts, they paved the path so to speak. There are numerous startups, who aim at helping you monetize your data. Datacoup, Citizen.me, Digi.me, DataWallet are trying that and have attracted significant interest. Nobody is forcing people to spend their privacy, and yet they are happy about it even for very little money.

It is a mistake to assume that more privacy is really better. I don’t know, and neither do the promoters of more privacy. Therefore, I am warry about the cries for the need of more privacy regulation. Existing regulations, such as the EU General Data Protection Regulation may already go too far on the administrative burden and too little on the interests of the individual. If the authorities collect huge fines, what’s in it for the individual, whose privacy was violated? Maybe instead we have to empower people to spend their privacy and profit from it? Isn’t it theirs and only theirs to start with?

Data dependent businesses have developed pretty efficient ways to collect, process, transfer and sell our data. We may interfere with them through bureaucracy and regulation, imposing compliance, fines, etc. For most this is what the governments are doing. Or we may simply demand for our cut of the profits from the data to be paid to us directly. Allow the people themselves to be involved and make decisions on their data sales, without complicating it.

One way to empower the individual is through consents. Our project the Consent Token explores ways for the individuals to grant consents for data processing and to manage such consents on a blockchain network. Consent is a shortcut into data value and shall be granted in exchange for part of the value.

The ways that the data industries deal with your data are not going to change anytime soon, but innovation is absolutely needed for the people to decide themselves what is best for them. The businesses shall be allowed to operate under our consent in exchange for part of the value that they are creating.

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