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Cash For Your Data Won’t Solve Big Tech Privacy Issues

It seems like such a great idea… at first. But how do you know what the data is really worth?

Here’s the argument for compensation at The New York Times:

Facebook and the other technological Goliaths offering free online services — from which they harvest data from and about their users — should pay for every nugget of information they reap… Getting companies to pay transparently for the information will not just provide a better deal for the users whose data is scooped up as they go about their online lives. It will also improve the quality of the data on which the information economy is being built. And it could undermine the data titans’ stranglehold on technology’s future, breathing fresh air into an economy losing its vitality.

Eduardo Porter, “Your Data Is Crucial to a Robotic Age. Shouldn’t You Be Paid for It?” at New York Times

Other sources concur, including The Economist, The Financial Times, The World Economic Forum, and less prominent voices such as Here and Now, the CBC (Canada’s national broadcaster), and National Public Radio.

As popular as this idea seems to be, the critical question is, would it work? Would making big content providers pay users for their information finally give us user privacy? If that’s the goal, the result may be worse than what we have now. Let me explain.

First, users are already being paid for their data in the form of “free services.” When you use Facebook, Google, or any other service based on an underlying social recommender system (which I prefer to call media technology)¸ you are already implying you are willing to give up some privacy in exchange for the perceived value of that service. Social media, search engines, and other providers are businesses that must meet costs and turn a profit. Many people see the convenience of these services as outweighing the value of the data they provide in “payment” for the service.

This leads to a second observation: Users don’t clearly understand the value of the data they are providing for these “free” services. The value of information is context-dependent. Under what circumstances might an individual piece of information be useful?

For instance, very few people think about the value of their location so they pay little attention to how much information they are leaking about their location through the images they post, the searches they perform, and the way applications can obtain their location information from their devices.

Some examples might be helpful here:

The location of a single person within a group of people united by a particular belief, such as a religion or a political viewpoint, might be relatively uninteresting. If, however, all (or most) of the people in this group happen to be in the same place at the same time and the place in question is not one that some of the members of the group have visited before… there is a high degree of certainty that the gathering relates to the shared belief.

Again, an individual’s location might not be very interesting — except to a stalker. The intentions (context) of the stalker change the value of the information from benign to potentially threatening.

So how can you know the value of the information you are “selling” to providers on a moment-by-moment basis in order to use their service? You cannot — because you cannot understand the larger context. Without this larger context, you cannot know how much your data is worth — or whether there is any price at which you would sell it. For instance, in the case of the stalker, most users would choose not to sell their location data at any price!

Paying users for data, however intuitively fair it might seem, is not going to solve the privacy problem. User data should not be bartered for services. Privacy is a fundamental right tied to the person, rather than something on which a price tag can be placed, which can be sold for a fistful of dollars.


Note: Software pioneers David Gelernter and Brendan Eich take a quite different view from Russ White and you can check it out here: Facebook gets rich off what we tell our friends. Social media pioneer David Gelernter has a proposal for sharing the wealth more fairly.

More from Russ White on how to be that tech-savvy internet user you’ve always wanted to be:

Are you trapped in a news bubble? Russ White: The news filtered to you might leave out important things you need to know. But how can you tell? Before we talk about how to get out of the news filter bubble, we need to look at how it actually works.

Escaping the news filter bubble: Three simple tips Spoiler: Reduce the amount of information big providers have about YOU. Over time, unnoticed bubbles form ever more effective barriers against alternative information, maybe information you need. But getting out requires only a few simple steps.

Pop-ups? Just say no, and close those tabs! Making the internet work for YOU means, among other things, getting control of who can follow you around. If allowing these notifications sounds like a perfect avenue for an attacker, that’s because it is. This attack surface is a very large hole in the security of your computer.


Russ White

Russ White has spent the last 30 years designing, building, and breaking computer networks. Across that time he has co-authored 42 software patents, 11 technology books, more than 20 hours of video training, and several Internet standards. He holds CCIE 2635, CCDE 2007:001, the CCAr, an MSIT from Capella University, an MACM from Shepherds Theological Seminary, and is currently working on a PhD in apologetics and culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Cash For Your Data Won’t Solve Big Tech Privacy Issues