GREAT UN­KNOWNS

Popular Mechanics (South Africa) - - Contents -

hile Face­book’s spokes­peo­ple didn’t re­ply to our in­quiries, we will of­fer one clar­i­fi­ca­tion in their de­fence: They do not ‘sell off ’ data, tech­ni­cally. What they sell is 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 up to a care­fully cu­rated sub­set of its users. Those with no taste, per­haps. Or no arms?

As for the ‘worth’ of all your data, to derive a (very) crude es­ti­mate, one could just take Face­book’s 2018 first- quar­ter rev­enue (R160 tril­lion), di­vide by the num­ber of ac­tive users (1.45 bil­lion), and come up with about R110.34 per quar­ter, or R441.36 a year. But that isn’t 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 par­celled out in­di­vid­u­ally, but rather as con­stituents of large pop­u­la­tions – tuba play­ers, or own­ers of di­a­betic cats. Note, also, that not ev­ery­one’s info is equally valu­able. But this, of course, is no re­flec­tion on you as a per­son – we’re don’t doubt 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 all his own footwear and ven­tures be­yond his na­tive vil­lage only to barter hand­i­crafts for cloudy wit­blits and used bi­cy­cle parts? Yeah, you’re worth, um – let’s just do the maths here … oh, ap­prox­i­mately noth­ing. Thanks for play­ing.

On the other hand, sup­pose that you’re a pipesmok­ing MBA stu­dent liv­ing on your re­fur­bished tug­boat with a vin­tage neck­tie col­lec­tion, as­sorted par­rots, and enough credit cards to spin roulette wheels blind­folded. Now 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 you’ve been sick, all of that prob­a­bly leads to more money be­ing given to tar­get us.’

Matt Ho­gan, co-founder of the start-up Dat­a­coup, which pays folks di­rectly for their data (a rel­a­tively com­mend­able ap­proach, we’d say, though a lit­tle sim­i­lar to pay­ing peo­ple to donate their kid­neys), says com­pa­nies traf­fic in more than so­cial de­tails. ‘Fi­nan­cial data re­mains ex­tremely pow­er­ful for fore­cast­ing,’ he ex­plains. ‘ Fu­ture con­sump­tion, the propen­sity to make pay­ments or go delin­quent, all that stuff.’

Un­doubt­edly, as data col­lec­tion keeps get­ting in­creas­ingly per­sonal, the ef­fects on your life may be­come much more se­ri­ous than toaster ads that chase you around the in­ter­net. Pam Dixon, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the World Pri­vacy Fo­rum, says a pro­file of your data could be pur­chased by a health­care plan and used to de­cide your pre­mi­ums. Or, if you were ap­ply­ing to a univer­sity, they might buy your data to find out if you can af­ford tu­ition be­fore de­cid­ing to ad­mit you.

The real ques­tion, then may not even be what your data is worth to oth­ers, but rather what it’s worth to you.

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