It has been a watershed year for internet users: the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook scandal highlighted the extent to which tech giants are harvesting user data and selling it on to third parties who in turn make big bucks off combining this information to create surprisingly detailed data profiles on us all.
We can vote with our feet by deleting all social media accounts, choosing not to shop on Amazon and similar, and using a non-tracking search engine such as DuckDuckGo but this might feel a little bit like going off the grid. Besides which, good luck closing the digital doors after so many of your data horses have bolted.
Another approach is to stoically acknowledge you have already been tracked and profiled but take back control of your personal data by selling it yourself, swapping it for cash or services. How does a free cup of coffee tickle your fancy?
It's amazing that we have gone this long with the current digital infrastructure that's almost been a colossal data heist
Coffee chain Shiru Café is opening up shop across the United States, placing outlets next to Ivy League universities and swapping lattes, wifi and study spaces in exchange for student data. On the surface, it appears that customers only need sit in the presence of ads from recruitment companies and fill out a form detailing work experience and career interests. On the surface.
Is this all our data is worth to us? In 2014, Italian researchers carried out a study among 60 smartphone users and found that participants were willing to sell data for a median minimum price of €2, which won’t even get you that cup of coffee. The categories of data that people were willing to sell were: location, app usage, media (eg photos) and phone call activity.
In the intervening years, this notion of explicitly choosing to sell our personal data hasn't grown very much but Matt Hogan, chief executive of personal data marketplace Datacoup, thinks change is in the air thanks to a baptism of fire for Facebook users in the dark arts of data profiling, and a decentralised internet on the horizon with the advent of blockchain technology.
“It’s amazing that we have gone this long with the current digital infrastructure that’s almost been a colossal data heist. The consumer has been almost hypnotised by free services and free content and never really questioned the undergirding facts of who owns their identity online and where the associated data get stored,” he says.
“You and I don’t really have control or quote-unquote ownership [of our data] – and I use quotes because ownership is a tricky concept when it comes to digital assets, which can live in multiple places at once. But nonetheless it’s kind of crazy that we have gone this long and haven’t really pulled the rug out from under this negative architecture that has lent itself to us being exploited.”
He acknowledges, however, that taking personal responsibility for all of your digital assets might be daunting for the average web user: "If you look out your window right now wherever you are in Ireland and I look out my window in New York city, you see people with lives, wives, health, wealth, mortgage, debt and kids. The last thing people want to do is lump on another responsibility. Data and identity management is a major one. It's the same reason we farm out a lot of our financial responsibilities to intermediaries like banks, investment managers: it's hard to take on new responsibility."
Hogan says the whole conversation around incentives to take control of your data, and make money to boot, is framed by the carrot-and-stick model, adding that "there have been a lot of sticks" lately: "There is a lot of fear out there that started with Edward Snowden, then it was the huge Sony hack, the JP Morgan hack, the Equifax hack last year was massive, then came Facebook and Cambridge Analytica."
In 2011, Hogan left a high-paying job on Wall Street to build Datacoup, at first working out of his apartment. By 2013 when the Snowden story hit, he was convinced there was a growing concern around personal data control.
This is a segue to Datacoup’s USP: it’s a platform that acts like a middle man or marketplace. You sign up, choose what data to share and get paid for this on a monthly basis. Hogan says it’s not taking any sign-ups right now because the system is being torn down and rebuilt using blockchain technology.
“If you ask me, ultimately, how we will be remunerating people, what our plans are going forward, it most certainly involves a crypto element and blockchain architecture that has better plumbing for true data control and ownership,” he says, adding that the trust element is built into the platform itself and there won’t be a centralised database.
“[Once the app is downloaded] the user can start connecting datasets. Once that data starts to come in we don’t kick it into our server any more, we throw it into a decentralised data store and it gets ‘sharded’ across a distributed network of nodes that keep little bits and pieces of that data. Now that data can be called at any given time and repackaged on a platform level so we can monetise it for you but we don’t keep it or store it.”
A bright, blockchain-enabled future of personal data ownership aside, when we currently hand over data for free products, go direct to emerging data marketplaces such as People.io or DirectMe to earn a little from our data, or hand it over to Facebook and Google in exchange for free social networking and email, we are not seeing the bigger picture.
"One of the big things in all of this is the [power of] combination: what companies are trying to do all the time is to combine these different pieces of data and connect it to something else that was given somewhere else and start to build up this much richer picture of you," says Dr Brian Mac Namee, a researcher in machine learning and statistics at the Insight Centre for Data Analytics at University College Dublin.
Mac Namee gives the example of recent research that connected Mosaic data on consumer classification (ie education, income level, media consumption) with location streams from people’s phones, adding a new dimension of data to the consumer: where they spend most of their time.
“Someone has attached another data source to an existing one and now they have this much richer picture of you. With individual little bits of data that you think ‘That’s not so bad’ and sometimes we get a bit surprised and realise those different bits of data that seemed innocuous by themselves, you’re not 100 per cent happy with the picture somebody gets to have of you when they put those pieces together.”
There is a disconnect, says Mac Namee, between the data we hand over up front and how that data is handled in the background: “It flows out to that coffee shop example: that the front face of who you are notionally giving your data to – a business or website you trust – trust that’s not really who you’re giving the data to because there’s a line of hidden third parties standing behind them.”
But surely these connections all add up to provide the personalisation we have become accustomed to. Most of us enjoy product recommendations, personalised searches and notifications of cinema releases tailored to our tastes. Isn’t profiling the price we pay, whether we get paid for our data or not?
“DuckDuckGo argue against that, “ says Mac Namee. “They say this idea of profiling and building those detailed profiles to use for things like advertising – their argument is they can make a very good search engine without doing any of that and at the same time they can make their money doing this by serving ads that are related to whatever you happen to be looking for at the time. They get 80 per cent of the personalisation they need from just looking at things you happen to be typing in at the time.”
Mac Namee’s analogy to put all of this in perspective is a visit to the local restaurant. You visit once or twice a week and the waiter gets to know you. Next time you come in, he says: ‘It’s great to see you. We have this lovely merlot that we think you’ll enjoy.’ This is fantastic and you’ll certainly be back.
“The flip side of that is if you discovered that the waiter had strolled across the road to the bank and said: ‘You know, next time Brian is in here I wouldn’t loan him any money, he’s a total lush; he’s in here two or three times a week putting away two bottle of merlot each time.’ You obviously wouldn’t like that.”
This behind-the-scenes data-sharing is the reason why Facebook, Google and other data giants can infer undisclosed information such as marital status, sexual and political orientation, education level, and even your IQ level from your fast-food choices (Facebook found a positive correlation between lovers of curly fries and a high IQ).
When it comes to your digital assets, for now, whether you’re selling it or giving it away, caution is advised because you don’t know how long the line of third-party brokers is and how many dots are being connected behind the scenes.