While Facebook’s spokespeople did not reply to our inquiries, we will offer one clarification in their defense: They do not “sell off” data, technically. They sell a service to advertisers. Looking to peddle your hemp-rope macramé vests? Facebook will happily take your money and use algorithms to serve your ads to a carefully curated subset of its users. Those with no taste perhaps. Or no arms.
As for the “worth” of your data, to derive a (very) crude estimate, one could take Facebook’s 2018 first-quarter revenue ($11.97 billion), divide by the number of active users (1.45 billion), and come up with about $8.25 per quarter, or $33 a year. But that’s not necessarily a useful calculation. In fact, it would be well-nigh impossible for anyone outside the company to figure out exactly how much an individual’s data was worth, and it might be difficult even for Maestro Zuckerberg himself.
That’s because users are not parceled out individually, but rather as constituents of large populations—tuba players, or owners of diabetic cats. Note, too, that not everyone’s info is equally valuable. This, of course, is no reflection on you as a person—we’re sure you’re the pride of your monastic yoga retreat—but merely accounts for the reality that some people are juicier marketing targets than others.
Are you a humble subsistence farmer who fashions his own footwear and ventures beyond his native village only to barter handicrafts for cloudy moonshine and used bicycle parts? Yeah, you’re worth, um—let’s just do the math here . . . approximately nothing. Thanks for playing.
On the other hand, suppose you’re a pipe-smoking MBA student living on a refurbished tugboat with a vintage necktie collection, assorted parrots, and enough credit cards to deal a full hand of no-limit Omaha. Then we’re getting somewhere.
“If you’re educated or wealthy, people will pay more for you,” says Rahul Telang, a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon’s CyLab Security & Privacy Institute. “If there are certain life changes going on like you’re buying a house, or getting married, or getting divorced, or if you’re sick, all of that probably leads to more money being given to target us.”
Matt Hogan, co-founder of the startup Datacoup, which pays people directly for their data (a commendable approach, we’d say, though a little like paying people to donate their kidneys), says companies traffic more than social details. “Financial data is extremely powerful for forecasting,” he says. “Future consumption, propensity to make payments or go, delinquent, all that kind of stuff.”
Indeed, as data collection gets increasingly personal, the effect on your life may become far more dramatic than toaster ads that chase you around the internet. Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, says that a profile of your data could be purchased by a healthcare plan and used to determine your premiums. Or, if you were applying to a private college, they might buy your data to find out if you can afford tuition before deciding to admit you.
The real question, then, may not be what is your data worth to others, but what is your privacy worth to you?
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