Can You Sell Your Digital Soul for Cash?

Category: Finance

Years of massive data breaches, shady dealings, and an epidemic of identity theft have left many consumers fed up with Facebook, Google, and other centralized data collectors. Some tech frontiersmen are trying to build alternatives that leave consumers in control of their data. But marketers still want our data, so they will come to us asking to buy it. Is that something we really want? Let's take a look...

Selling Yourself in the Internet Age

The Web’s inventor, Sir Tim Berners-Lee (or “TBL”), is working on a thing he calls Solid, which I recently described. It will give each user a secure, portable “POD” that holds all of his digital data. The owner of that data can selectively share it with apps and companies, and revoke access at any time. For example, you might grant a medical researcher access to your FitBit health monitor data for the duration of a study. But why should you?

There are many possible reasons one might share personal data with strangers. Gaining access to desired services such as Google or Facebook is one example. Getting a mortgage from a bank is another. But we have little incentive to give marketers data knowing they will use it to sell us things. They’ll have to come up with something better than “more relevant offers.”

“For cash” is a popular reason to sell things; it will do for personal data, in many cases. Sure enough, there are firms offering to buy specific sets of data directly from consumers. But there are plenty of catches in these deals.

Selling Your Digital Soul

First, none of them offers U. S. dollars or any other government-backed currency; they all pay in various forms of cryptocurrency. The firms’ rationale is that the blockchain tech on which crypto is based provides a secure, detailed record of transactions that no one can alter or dispute. I’m not sure what the value of that is, but it’s how these firms are doing business for now.

Ocean Protocol bills itself as "an ecosystem for sharing data and services," and perhaps a place where people can sell their data to businesses in a safe and transparent manner. Why perhaps? For starters, the project, which has attracted millions in venture capital funding, is still in the development and testing phase. And then there's the technospeak.

The O.P. home page goes on to to say that it will provide "a tokenized service layer that exposes data, storage, compute and algorithms for consumption with a set of deterministic proofs…" and there will be "staking on services to signal quality, reputation and ward against Sybil Attacks."

I'm a technophile, but that kind of language is anything but transparent, and clearly not targeted at individuals looking for a place to sell personal data. Fortunately, there are a few startups already in operation that are trying to make it possible.

Marketplaces for Digital Data

Datum is one such firm. It offers product managers (marketers) access to over 60,000 registered Datum users, or “crypto enthusiasts” as they are called. Marketers can securely message users with offers to buy some of the latter’s data; negotiations and deals presumably follow. Payments are made in a crypto token called a DAT. is for Apple users only. It enables sharing of personal data from the Apple Health app, which consolidates health data collected by iPhones, Apple Watches, and third-party iOS apps. Eventually, lab test results and other medical data may be available via; health insurance giant Anthem is working on that. uses a cryptocurrency known as NRN.

Wibson is more of a general data marketplace. Users can list all sorts of data, including location history, social media data, health data from Google Fitness and Strava which may include blood pressure and glucose data. Users list on Wibson the datasets they wish to sell and buyers contact them with offers. Payments are made in Ethereum crypto.

What can you earn by selling your data? Writing for Wired magazine, Gregory Barber described his two-week experiment with all of the decentralized data brokers described above. He sold access to his Facebook data, GPS location data, health-related info, and some other personal tidbits. He was "paid" in WIBs, DATs, and NRNs - the cryptocurrency "coins" preferred by the "data consumers" he dealt with.

Coinbase, one of the more popular cryptocurrency exchanges, lists over 40 forms of cryptocurrency, along with current values, if you want to convert to U.S. dollars. But it doesn't have any info on WIBs, DATs, or NRNs. I poked around a bit, but couldn't find a website with exchange prices for any of them. Barber doesn't say where he got his crypto conversion figures, but after converting to U.S. currency, he says his total take was about $0.003. That's not $3000 written backwards -- that's three tenths of one cent.

Of course, if even one of those cryptocurrencies takes off, Barber will be set for life. Right? But that's quite an optimistic gamble. In the end, he sold personal data, got nothing in return, and wasted his time doing so. Of course, it was just an experiment, but perhaps his time would have been better spent donating blood. This website says you can make $20-$50 by donating your plasma.

When I first read about the Solid project, and its promise to put control of data back in the hands of individuals, I was skeptical of the notion that one could sell personal data for more than pennies. This experiment doesn't bolster my hopes. Even if the value of the data that Gibson sold were to rise by a factor of 10,000 it would still only be worth three dollars. Perhaps the truth of the matter is that the value of one digital identity is a lot less than we hoped.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Can You Sell Your Digital Soul for Cash?"

Posted by:

08 Jan 2019

Why not? You have already sold yourself to Facebook and all the other social media platforms you are on.
Facebook and all the other social media platforms know more about you than does the FBI, CIA, and the NSA combined! Eventually, technology will be our death.

Posted by:

08 Jan 2019

That would be $30.00.

Posted by:

08 Jan 2019

'That's three-tenths of one cent", which would be $0.3 but it is actually three-THOUSANDTHS of one cent. It goes... 0.3 is three-tenths, 0.03 is three-hundredths and 0.003 is then three-thousandths. The proof: 10,000 times $0.003 is actually $30.00!

Posted by:

Arbie Trage
08 Jan 2019

If you were running a direct mail campaign and 97-99% of your mailpieces were discarded, you would have a successful campaign because you can make money on the 1 to 3% that did respond. The secret is in the large numbers. It is even more so in personal data on the internet. YOUR person data is not worth that much to marketers because you are merely one on millions of prospects. So they will never pay you much. By contrast, you only have one identity and one set of personal data. If it gets compromised, that is still all you have. So to you, your data should be worth millions (or billions?). A practical example: What if you take one of those DNA tests so popular right now and insurance companies get their hands on the results? In our current health care world, could they call a genetic tendency toward developing cancer a "pre-existing condition" and use that as an excuse to refuse to insure you? What would THAT be worth?

Posted by:

top squirrel
08 Jan 2019

One thing that nobody's mentioned:
You can sell your data only once. How would you know whether it was subsequently shared and somebody else used it? If somebody steals your money you will notice a distinct reduction in the currency lying about or the bank balance. Or other valuables. But not information, which is probably the only commodity that can be stolen without leaving a trace.
HIPAA, which brags that it protects your medical privacy, allows unlimited and unrecorded access to your "protected" health information for "treatment, payment and health care ops," and an enquirer need do precious little more than claim one of the three and you're hanging out there. And once it's out you can't put it back in the bottle.
Ditto financial information over the dark web. (If you've ever applied for a loan, the bank will share your information with a credit bureau.)
And anything you put on social media.
I read that a prospective employer would think I am antisocial and undesirable for never having a Facebook account.
An employer who would not realize you have the capacity to treat his trade secrets with the same respect you accord your own information may not be worth working for.
Your information IS you.
Are you for sale?

Posted by:

11 Jan 2019

Interesting post - but more interesting are the comments. clamoree, for instance, simply cannot do simple math. $0.3 is 30c - or it was when I was at school, one dollar being 100 cents - so $0.003 IS 3/10 of one cent. NB has better math skills than you, too, Bob. 10,000 times £0.003 IS £30.00.
As for selling your personal data, it's unlikely you'd ever make money at it. There are so many ways that corporations can get hold of your data for free that they'll never stand for you charging for it, then you have to trust them not to pass it on, and, more importantly, to keep it safe. History has shown that some of the largest data holders have the worst security.
The easiest way to get your data is to ask for it; scammers just send you a spoof email asking you to confirm details which they don't know, and you go ahead and give it to them. You wouldn't? If your spam detection skills are as good as the aforementioned math ones, this is more than likely.
As for employers, I've never yet met one who considers a Facebook account to be an employment necessity; they're more likely to consider you unsuitable if your CV (resume - sorry, I write in English) doesn't match their computer's textual analysis requirements.

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