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How to sacrifice your online privacy for fun and profit

Alex Wawro | Feb. 13, 2013
You have value--and not just as a good friend, loving family member, and upstanding member of society. You're also a valuable commodity that companies buy and sell. Your age, browsing habits, and friends lists are all hot properties. And yes, all this data is recorded, packaged, and sold to the highest bidder by your favorite websites.

Links in the report take you straight to the relevant privacy setting so you can quickly lock down your private info--a convenient safeguard if you're concerned about potential privacy breaches caused by bad guys working with easily accessible data-mining tools like Facebook Graph Search.

For the purposes of this article, we're concerned about cold, hard cash, and Privacyfix takes a stab at estimating how much money Facebook and Google make off of you every year based on your current privacy settings, the number of ads you see from those services, and what percentage of their revenue comes from online advertising (with the help of the financial analysts at Trefis.) According to Privacyfix, I'm worth more than $600 a year to Google but less than 50 cents to Facebook. The lion's share of that discrepancy comes from Google's significant ad revenue from search, which suggests that search history (what you want) is far more valuable to advertisers than your social graph (who you know).

Still, PrivacyChoice founder Jim Brock is careful to point out that these numbers are purely hypothetical. "I love the idea of users being able to turn a profit on their data, but I just don't think the world is set up for that," Brock says.

Trading data for cash

He's right. I won't be collecting that $600 anytime soon, because there's no trusted method for individuals to exchange their personal information for Federal Reserve notes. It's not for lack of trying, though. Consider Enliken, a company that creates data exchange systems between consumers (us) and publishers (them). These systems allow publishers to grant access to content based on what personal information you're willing to share. Imagine a paywall like those on websites like the New York Times, except that, before you can read an article or watch a video, you have to answer a question about your shopping habits or provide a bit of personal information.

"We don't sell your data for money," says Marc Guldimann, founder of Enliken. "We use it as currency instead. It's our job to help people get comfortable trading data." Guldimann is betting that this voluntary exchange of data is better for everyone in the long run: Publishers will get better data about their audience, and the audience gets something it wants in return.

Listening to Guldimann talk about data exchanges is like paging through a dusty copy of Neuromancer, but it's not science fiction. You can already reap rewards for voluntarily giving up your private data. Look no farther than Foursquare, which lets you trade your location data for discounts by checking in at participating retailers. Link your American Express card to your Foursquare account, and you can even get cash back on purchases when you check in at select locations, enabling you, in effect, to sell your body (in the form of a Foursquare check-in that your friends can see) for money.


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