Is It Time We Started To Sell Our Own Personal Data?

August 12, 2015

Having railed against the death of privacy more than once in these musings, not to mention urging caution lest the Internet of Things turns people into some of the ‘things’ it controls, I’m probably the last person you might expect to discuss monetising personal data.

However, the fact is that we are all increasingly being incorporated into valuable data sets, almost always without our knowledge; data that is being sold for a profit by those who gather it, and then used to sell all manner of products to us through targeted advertising and offers based on our known needs and activities.

Most disturbingly of all, the harvesters and resellers of our most personal data are no longer simply shady hackers operating out of lockups in Beijing, they are often respectable App developers operating with the full blessing of Apple and Android.

How Your Data Is Currently Being Sold By Others

An estimated 30% of free mobile Apps currently capture personal data from your phone, which is then sold for marketing purposes. In most cases, they do so quite legally, as somewhere in the many pages of Terms & Conditions that you couldn’t be bothered to read (and who could?), you gave them permission to.

Even more worryingly, a recent analysis of 12 fitness Apps conducted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the USA concluded that, between them, the 12 Apps captured and sent data to no less than 76 third parties; data that included user names, emails, exercise regimes, diets, medical symptom searches, locations and gender.

It’s valuable data too, simply because it is so highly targeted. For example, if you use an app to track the mileage you’re putting on your running shoes, you’re the warmest possible lead for running shoe manufacturers: and a list containing even a thousand people like you is worth far more than a list of a million people who share your age and income but not your running habit.

This will lead to you seeing targeted ads and emails for all manner of related products; and given the butterfingers approach to data protection offered by many commercial organisations, will presumably lead to your personal data falling into the hands of the scammers.

Is Selling Yourself Now The Smart Thing To Do?

Speaking for myself, analyses such as those conducted by the FCC simply make me want to tighten the privacy controls on every App I own, using software such as PrivacyHawk: which enables you to root out malware as well as analysing and controlling the multifarious data leaks committed by individual Apps; which are currently carrying on like the deranged love children of Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning.

However, this is the modern world, and it’s clear that declaring a full embargo on outgoing personal data is increasingly like declaring a law against the tide coming in.

So I was interested to discover a new App called Citizenme, which already allows social media users to monitor and control how their data is used, and will ultimately enable them to sell their own data to third parties of their choosing, with Citizenme taking a small percentage off the top.

Naturally, as a non-millennial I’m skeptical to a degree about how many people will wish to monetise personal data for presumably quite small returns. The App’s creators beg to differ though, as their research indicates that older users welcome Citizenme’s ability to control privacy, while younger users, who are inured to the likes of Facebook selling their data, simply think that if their private life is going to be sold anyway, they might as well grab a piece of the action.

Personally, I’m pretty unlikely to sell my own data, now or ever. Yet I’m still happy to offer a warm welcome to Citizenme, as any App that enables me to understand and control my privacy settings  - not to mention preventing nosy-parker Apps from getting a little payola for snitching every time I choose Nandos over the gym – has got to be a good thing.

Jessica Ellis - Business Development Director