Selling Your Digital Soul for Cash

Category: Finance , Privacy

Privacy concerns have left many consumers fed up with Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and other centralized data collectors. Some tech startups are trying to build alternatives that leave consumers in control of their data. Digital marketers want your data, but are you willing to sell it (and your privacy) for cold hard cash? Let's take a look…

Selling Your Personal Data: A Good Idea?

The Web’s inventor, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, says he is “devastated” and “sickened” by what has become of it. So back in 2018, he started an effort called Solid, which I described in an earlier article. The goal was to give each user a secure, portable “POD” that holds all of their digital data. The owner of that data can selectively share or sell it if they choose.

For example, you might grant an advertising network access to your web browsing history, in exchange for payment, and the presumption that you’ll receive ads targeted to your specific interests. But this project, and several others like it, have not gained much traction so far.

Sure enough, there are firms offering to buy specific sets of data directly from consumers. But there are plenty of catches in these deals. And some points to ponder as well. Let’s look at some of the options.

Selling Your Digital Soul

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

What can you earn by selling your data? Writing for Wired magazine, Gregory Barber described his late 2018 experiment with a variety of decentralized data brokers. He sold access to his Facebook data, GPS location data, health-related info, and some other personal tidbits. He was "paid" in cryptocurrency by the "data consumers" he dealt with. After converting his crypto “coins” to U.S. currency via Coinbase, one of the more popular cryptocurrency exchanges, his total take was about three tenths of one cent.

It’s been two years since Gibson’s experiment, and most of the providers he mentioned are no longer in business. So let’s look at some current projects that promise to compensate Internet users for the data they provide.

Invisibly is one startup that acts on your behalf, dealing with advertisers who want to reach consumers. They license the data that you choose to provide to businesses that want to send you targeted advertisements. Invisibly says they split the revenue 50/50 with their users. Don Vaughn, Head of Product at Invisibly says, “it’s time we enable people to take back control of their data. By creating a platform that lets people make money from their data, we’re not only educating people on how valuable their data is, we’re telling big tech it’s time to change the way things are done, and time to start fairly compensating people for the data they regularly profit from.”

Vaughn says he hopes that “in a couple of years people will make a thousand dollars a year off their data.” But currently, they only pay out between $5 and $10 per month to those who participate. That’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, but it won’t pay the rent.

Nielsen, the firm that tracks TV viewing habits, is also getting into the fray. The Nielsen Computer and Mobile Panel promises to “Make your Internet usage count!” If you answer some questions about yourself, your household, and the devices you use, then install an app which collects anonymous data about how you use the Internet, you can “earn rewards.” If you install the app on one or more mobile devices, you will receive “points redeemable for up to $50 a year in rewards.” They don’t say what the points can be used for. But hey… you’ll also be entered into a monthly sweepstakes in which Nielsen gives away $10,000 each month.

Killi says they are “the first and only company in the world that allows users to control what personal data they share with companies and earn Killi Points from it.” Well duh… no other company would give you Killi Points. Clearly they’re not the only company that’s offering to compensate you for your data. So what’s their deal? Killi offers a calculator to see how much your data is worth. According to their numbers, Facebook makes $367 each year from your data. Google earns $197, Amazon $130, Netflix $128, and so on.

By signing up with Killi, you can get “your share” of that booty. Killi lets you earn points by joining some combination of their Profile, Shopping, Browsing, and Device Rewards programs. You can also get points by participating in polls and sharing your location. The Killi Points you earn are worth 1 cent each, and can be cashed out via Amazon gift cards, other e-gift cards, or donated to charity. How much will you earn? Killi says you are likely to earn 100 to 400 points ($1 to $4) per month, depending on how much you share.

When I first read about Solid and these other projects, and the 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 petty cash. These experiments don't bolster my hopes. Some privacy pundits worry that if this does pan out, it will create a digital divide in which some people are forced to sell their digital souls for free access to online services.

Maybe it will take time, and a critical mass of online users involved, for this “get paid for your data” concept to work. Or maybe 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 "Selling Your Digital Soul for Cash"

Posted by:

bob k
12 Jul 2021

And what was the Gibson experiment of which you speak?

Posted by:

Nigel A
12 Jul 2021

I always work on the principle that anything on the Internet or phone (both landline and cellular/mobile) are in the public domain./ Just like being in a crowded place with people listening. I just ignore the ads and accept that they are the price of the free service which I'm getting, at least it's not money out of my pocket unless I act on an ad.

Posted by:

Brian B
12 Jul 2021

My data and privacy is worth a million dollars to me. Any takers?

Posted by:

12 Jul 2021

See, these would never work for me. I'm sick and tired of being sold-to 24/7. It's why I use ad blockers. My information and it will remain so.

Posted by:

Russell Baldwin
13 Jul 2021

I for one am not excited by the fact our data seems up for grabs... But at the same time, if I'm going to be targeted and hassled, then I ready to make a few bucks for the harassment.
I would love to have access to my known data and have a way to approve or deny, for a price, who gets to see my data. Its way past radio time where a blanket add is sent out for everyone in listening shot.

Posted by:

13 Jul 2021

I loathe advertising. I delete it from any recordings I've made. God alone knows what the advertising budgets are for some of the large firms .... which add costs to every purchaser. And what IS the point of receiving adverts (which some seem to have collected somehow from Amazon - and show it in the top line of my Yahoo email account, before my ad-blocker removes it - from what I have purchased in the past?) for something I know I've bought but don't want or need again?? It's infuriating, stupid and a complete waste of money.

Posted by:

Christopher Sirr
13 Jul 2021

Your article "Selling Your Digital Soul for Cash" is quite interesting and should prompt readers to contemplate all the trouble that might befall them for having made a deal to sell their data for pennies.

Certainly, the current system of losing data needs examination. However, there is another possibility that represents even greater danger.
People should consider the acquiescence of American Computer Manufacturers surrendering technology to Communist China.

1st - Pure stupidity of many reasons including lost intellectual information.

2nd - China could be hiding all sorts of SPY technology in computers and their accessories, either for information mining or sabotage.

Doubters should explain China's announced intention to wipe the United States us off the map and their treatment of Hong Kong.

Posted by:

j b spence
13 Jul 2021

Besides the others' comments, I use a third party email forwarder. They filter out much of the spam.
Also I can change my email address and no one knows the difference ... since 1995.

Posted by:

15 Jul 2021

"...promise to put control of data back in the hands of individuals, I was skeptical..."
The control of our own data has always been our choice. In the interim, apathy and/or complacency got the better off us because of the simplicity offered in return.
When gMail and gVoice were first offered, I ensured that my real name was not attached, in any way, to the invite-only registrations of the time. There was no such thing as having to consent to DNA sampling of today, in order register (I think). About a few years ago, I logged into my gOOgle account and did a deep dive into what exactly google knows about me. To my shock, gOOgle had some how (and cleverly) figured out my '6 degrees of Kevin Bacon' to tie my real identity to my e-ID. If I could ONLY figure out an alternative to gVoice (w/o a smartphone), I'd nix gOOGle completely from my life. Although a bit too late for me and my identity, THAT would've been truly priceless for me!

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