Is your personal data your wealth?

It has been 15 years since the beginning of Facebook and the launch of Gmail, two giants that epitomise the “data economy” we live in today. We are no strangers to the fact that mountains of data are collected about us as we use online products and services – this is just the hidden cost of many services.

People may say to themselves that most of this data isn’t “personal data”, and that making it available doesn’t bother them that much. But a question worth considering is: What counts as Personal Data, and how much should we value it?

What is Personal data?

The first things that come to mind with the words ‘personal data’ maybe things like your name, home address, and bank account number. These are very personal and sensitive pieces of information, but there is more than this that we should be conscious of. Any piece of information about you or your actions can be considered personal data. This could be your interests, your relationship status, what kind of pet you have, how you react to certain things online, etc. Although it may not be possible for those collecting the data to identify you personally through this data, it is likely to be passed on to third parties who will use it to identify you, or at least to profile you. It’s for this reason that even your browser cookies can be considered personal data under GDPR.

Where is the value in personal data?

The monetary value that becomes assigned to all this data originates from the demand generated by data brokers. The bread and butter of data brokers are to compile consumer information and to sell organised information or statistical derivatives of that information to other data brokers or to organisations that will make use of it. The destination for most of this data is to be used for social profiling. By having a digital profile of consumers, a company can increase its sales and conversions by targeting and soliciting people more likely to become and remain as customers.

This picture of demand and supply is clear and makes sense, but what is important to understand is that we are talking about HUGE amounts of data related to vast numbers of consumers. The downside of this for consumers and subjects of personal data is that we can’t really cash in on our own information. The data brokerage industry is generating $200bn USD in revenue every year, but one person’s data isn’t worth enough to scoop up any significant share of this. The closest an individual can come to cash in on their data is to invest time filling out countless online surveys.

Your personal data

So, if we agree that there isn’t a treasure of untapped wealth in our personal data and activity, why should we care about where it goes and who gets a hold of it? The digital profile that a data broker or marketing firm may build of you can affect your experience with services all over the web. It is widely acknowledged that social media platforms implement filtering like this to tailor social feeds for individuals. Some people may not realise that these tricks are implemented across all industries. To give a basic example (in the mild extremities), you could be profiled as a high-risk customer by a financial institution based on your search history relating to particular medicines or medical conditions. On the other end of the scale, you could be targeted with advertisements for a product that you’ve never heard of but which was deemed apt for your profile and you may end up loving the product and becoming a life-long happy customer.

Your opinion on big data and data brokers may be that of a happy-go-lucky consumer, or a suspicious techno-nihilist. Regardless of where you fall, we should all be aware of how our activities and information about our lives and minds can impact what we see in the world. Remember that every time you agree to a privacy policy, you are probably giving a little to get a little.

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