It’s Probably A Bad Idea to Let People Sell Their Data

Author: Ali Ayaz

Introduction

One of the first instincts one can have when they realize they have something of value is to weigh its price and decide to sell it. That same impulse carries towards our Data, especially after realizing the influence our data has had on enabling companies to run analytic models at unprecedented scale. Naturally, many felt an invasion of privacy more than anything else, but a few opportunists pointed out that their privacy is not only sacred, but financially valuable. The reasoning goes as such; if private data is being accumulated, stored, sold and bought, then there should be no reason for the consumer to benefit from selling their own data.

However, upon further examination, things are not quite that simple, as they rarely are. Some things that must be taken into account are the value of one person’s data in the giant databases they are usually included in. Yes, our data is included in billion dollar computations, but it’s only a single data point amongst millions if not billions of observations. At that scale our data is worth pennies. These points have been further accentuated by projects that attempted to fulfill that demand in the market. These experiments have shown multiple undesirable outcomes of giving consumers a platform to sell their personal data.

Not Very Lucrative

Some tried to leverage the rise in demand and provided a platform for consumers to sell their data. For example, In recent events a notable data broker was forced to abandon their private user project, which allowed individuals to sell their personal data, instead focusing on their platform on Businesses and Banks. This came as a surprise to many of their customers and was met with relative disappointment from the team and their users. Although many would expect the company to have been met with relative success due to their intuitive approach, reality proved otherwise. On the other hand, apps monetizing bank data and otherwise do not enjoy high returns. 

Ultimately, this shows a rejection in the market today of the idea that personal data disconnected from other data is valuable. This of course makes sense, because it isn’t data that is actually valuable to companies today, it’s the observations and predictions that they enable us to make. Monetary returns on our data being used does not seem feasible, not yet.

Thrives On Inequality

This approach to allowing people to sell their own data comes with its own Ethical weight, much like wondering whether one ought to allow people to sell their own blood. It begs the question as to who would sell their private information, especially when the return is, from what we’ve seen, meager. The answer seems to be people who are in dire economic situations and need the money. In a way, this allows for a very dystopian future. The affluent will be able to keep their data to themselves and reap the benefits of anonymity, while the poor will be forced to sell it in order to make ends meet. This could create a very large inequality in our society, with those with money being able to keep their data and selectively choose the permissions on their privacy more freely , and those without money being forced to sell it and not reap any of the benefits. Think - students selling their blood plasma to pay for student loans.

Unethical

Despite all the aforementioned elements, Facebook released a ‘Research Application’ which faced privacy criticisms when it was found out that a lot of the data the application was sourcing came from kids as young as thirteen years old. Leveraging demand in the market, Facebook’s application allowed users to sell Facebook their personal data for a monthly fee - ten to twenty dollars a month. Facebook justified the usage of teenager’s data by asking for a signed consent form from a parent. There are many reasons why this is a flawed approach for personal data, let alone someone else’s. Read more about it here.

Multiple scandals plagued Facebook’s application. They obfuscated their application as an enterprise tool in their company to bypass Apple’s AppStore terms and install their program on iOS devices. After being caught by Apple this resulted in Facebook’s ban from enterprise tool development - temporarily. Ultimately that was not the main issue facing this application. Facebook’s app itself functioned in a surprisingly similar manner to malicious actors.

The application was found to turn one’s phone into a node within a private network run by Facebook. Everything that went through a user’s phone would eventually return to Facebook. No encryption, no limits. A person’s entire digital footprint uploaded and processed by Facebook. Security researchers have pointed out that this gives Facebook great ability to act unethically. The end result is something similar to a dormant botnet which only accumulates data with no intention of causing any perceptible damage, but the possibility of that damage is only heightened by its presence.

Conclusion

Facebook isn’t the only tech giant exploring their options alongside the continuously growing regulation over personal data. Although Apple banned Facebook’s App, it’s still available on Android. Additionally, Google has a similar application available on their play-store as well. These invasive practices continue today and they belong to a market that thrives on unethical practices, jargon laden consent terms and economic disparity. Ultimately, it’s not worth it, neither for the user nor for the companies buying their data. Eroding user trust might work for Google and Facebook, but these practices are starting to cause an alienation of most users and regulatory bodies from these companies. Finally, the hard economic fact is that selling people’s data is not profitable, neither for people nor for the companies involved.

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