Unless you live in a cave and have never touched a smartphone or computer, you may already know that it’s impossible not to leave a personal data trail while navigating the digital world. The invisible cookies are always watching our activities and algorithms making suggestions for the benefit of the digital economy. And now with connected devices, our society will be awash in data soon.
Companies have been busy minting money by monetizing our personal data. In return, we get to use their app, website, or service for “free,” but with advertisements. Targeted ads are now commonplace on Facebook. It’s not a surprise that a bulk of its revenue comes from advertisements. On the other hand, data brokers, such as Acxiom Corp., collect hundreds of data points per person for millions of people worldwide. The company processes over 50 trillion sales transactions/ year by selling consumer data multiple times to multiple customers without our knowledge. There is no way we can find out where our data is stored and how it is being sold behind the curtains.
This raises some important questions: Is this a fair trade-off in which we get access to free services and in return companies make a fortune? Will companies be willing to share even a micro-percentage of their revenue with us to make the trade-off justified? And, what’s the future of information sharing? The gap between companies’ wealth and what we get in return will continue to widen. This has to change. So, what’s the solution? I think we can address this issue by flipping it on its head.
We really need to start recognizing the value of our data. We have to think of all data created by us as our personal property, not that of the company that collected it. It’s already happening. Companies like Datacoup sell your anonymous data for real money. The pricing is based on market fluctuations; users choose to sell their data at any moment to the company, which then resell it to third parties at a competitive price. Also, concepts like citizenme are gaining momentum. The company aims to liberate your personal data and make artificial intelligence accessible to everyone. You are in control of your data and discover what it says about you, and you can choose to exchange it with a company. And, your data always remains anonymous and aggregated. In fact, 72% of consumers surveyed feel that cash rewards will motivate them to share their personal data with companies.
It’s not in distant future that we may start signing ‘personal data contracts’ with companies which will bring transparency upfront in terms of:
- Where is my data stored?
- What information on me is collected?
- How is my data being used?
- How much I get paid?
- What are my options if I want to revoke my data and terminate the contract?
What about privacy then? Well, it’s conditional. We are witnessing events like ‘data privacy day’ happening and regulations gradually taking shape across the world. But at the heart of the debates about data privacy today, there lies a mirage—an assumption that digital regulations will address the privacy-related issues OR we should develop self-control in protecting our privacy online OR companies should be more cognizant of our privacy.
First, the law will never catch up. Regulations are always behind the curve compared with technological advancements. While digital regulations will evolve at their own pace across geographies, they should not be considered as the only resort for protecting consumer data.
Second, let’s face it—while we generally voice a desire for privacy, we are also very open with the information we share about our lives online. In fact, 77% of us view social media platforms as critical to maintaining social relationships. In spite of all the concerns about companies tracking our information online, few people swore off the Internet entirely. Human conversations are being replaced with ‘updates’ and ‘likes.’ We are still very likely to disclose personal information online, download apps, upload images, and follow free sites. The truth is that we tend to focus more on the benefits we’ll get out of the activity online, than the risk of engaging in it and this will not change in the future either.
And third, many companies believe that they have done their part by publishing privacy and security policies. But more than half of consumers see the densely packed text in the “terms and conditions” popup, think “This is Greek to me,” and skim past it to press the “I ACCEPT” button. No matter how hard we try to protect our information, it’s almost impossible to do it. Almost 50% of consumers surveyed agreed that there is no data privacy in the digital world, with everything being online.
I believe the notion of “privacy” will undergo a radical change over the next 10 years. We should have a ‘Delete’ button that allows us to be in full control of our data. It’s up to us to decide what we choose to disclose or not disclose about ourselves, and in which contexts, and with whom. It may be that what is seen as the unethical sale of data today will be acceptable tomorrow. As consumers become more educated about how companies are using their data, they might be willing to assume more risk in exchange for more value than simply a personalized experience or a free service. This kind of trade-off, called the give-to-get ratio, will be the new norm for privacy in the future.
We surely need open and honest conversations about the future of information sharing, and how we want our data to be traded in the dynamic digital economy because we deserve more for our data.