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.