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Life:Connected

Facebook, Google and personal data: What’s yours worth?

(Thinkstock)

(Thinkstock)

Companies make millions by trading in your personal information from social media, browsing history and other online activity. Now you can get a slice of the action by selling the data yourself, says Tom Brewster, but how much can you actually make?

When I decided to sell the secret details of my personal life, I had high hopes I’d get a willing buyer. It didn’t go well.

I had been curious to see if I could make money from my online information – something that data brokers across the world are doing every day; collecting it, combining it with others’ information and flogging it to marketing firms or anyone willing to pay. So I put myself on eBay.

My offer included one month's worth of browsing history, posts from Facebook and Twitter accounts, three email addresses in frequent use and 10 photos of my sorry face. The offer was even open to some negotiation. “If you are after different personal data from those offered, please ask,” read my notice on the auction page.

No bids arrived. In a last ditch attempt to get some traction, two days before the end of the auction, I advertised the sale on the UK Business Forums, a website for small business owners and entrepreneurs to share ideas and offer services. It seemed like a sensible place to find organisations hungry for customer insight as they look to develop their businesses. Still nothing. After seven days and just 31 views of the eBay page, it was all over.

It became apparent I’m no salesman, but others have had significantly more success. Are there better ways of selling your personal data? And if so, how much is it worth?

Hidden costs

In 2012, Federico Zannier, a web developer and Microsoft Xbox employee, put similar personal data up for sale to the public, and was offered a couple of thousand dollars. He didn’t do it to make money though. The Seattle resident had realised that many people were unaware their personal information was being traded by big data brokers, including giants like Acxiom and Epsilon, without them ever seeing a penny.

Such brokers collect publicly available or purchasable information from as many sources as possible, such as loyalty cards from supermarkets or websites that track user activity. They then crunch that data to provide market insights, which they will offer to marketers providing targeted ads or any other interested firms, or simply trade the details they scoop up with each other.

Zannier’s campaign, which was intended to shine a light on the issue and its implications for privacy, was somewhat slicker than mine. He launched a whole website dedicated to the project and a promotion over Kickstarter, the crowdfunding website. That’s why he was able to raise $2,733, rather than zilch.

“It was a provocation to make people more aware of what is actually going on. My desire was to make everyone a bit more knowledgeable. I just really wanted to start a conversation about privacy,” Zannier says.

Despite not having any commercial interest in his idea, giving all the money back to donors, he also helped spur on the race to create the perfect service for people to regain control of their data and profit from it. Not long after his project finished, Zannier was contacted by a New York business called DataCoup, asking for his advice. The service DataCoup ended up creating is now running a prototype version where it is paying 1500 participants – including me – for their online information (apart from being an early user and receiving PayPal payment for my data, I have no financial interest in the company). The service is expected to be made available to the general public in June, when it will be the only business running this kind of personal data market.

Giveaway price

Users click on the websites from which they are happy to share personal data, and wait for the money to pour into their bank account. Or trickle – the maximum a user can currently earn is $8 a month. By giving up data from my Facebook, Google, LinkedIn and Twitter accounts, I was promised $4 a month. It’s also possible to offer information from online credit or debit card transactions, as well as Instagram, Flickr, Foursquare, Last.fm and Tumblr.

The question is whether DataCoup can be sustainable. Matt Hogan, its founder, claims his business will prosper because the quality of data they will offer marketing partners will be so much greater than traditional brokers. Users’ data is pooled and “stripped of any identifiable factors”, such as name and email address, according to Hogan. Analytics is then run on the data to glean patterns and insights, which are sold on to willing buyers – marketers in particular.

Hogan claims his data is more accurate than established data brokers. “That $15 billion market will be a sub-$10 billion market in a very short amount of time,” says Hogan, a former bonds salesman who was at Lehman Brothers when it went bankrupt at the start of the crash.

Yet previous efforts to launch businesses similar to DataCoup have stuttered. British firm Handshake was supposed to launch to the public early this year, but founder Duncan White has left to start a similar company. He says he wasn’t happy with the final design of the website and mobile application, and admits it’s difficult to attract buyers for the data, who are used to more established vendors. “It's not an easy market to get into. It's relatively easy to get the members' side of the equation,” he says. “But brands are so set in their ways.”

Others doubt that enough people would want to sell their information. Alan Mitchell, strategy director at Ctrl-Shift, a UK-based consultancy for those interested in consumer-empowering data trading, argues people recognise they would not be able to use free services like Facebook and Gmail if it weren’t for the data-driven advertising on these sites. Consumers already see their data as a kind of currency for using “free” websites, he says.

“The knee-jerk reaction is that if companies are selling my data, why can't I? That's a nice inversion as a thought experiment but practically speaking the way people get value from data differs,” he adds.

Yet just as Facebook convinced people they needed a social network and the iPad convinced them they needed a tablet, this embryonic market needs a champion that can alter the industry for good, if it’s to become more than just a niche. Zannier, at least, is optimistic. “It's just a matter of finding the right tools,” he says. “If everything is approached with pure transparency and people are aware of what's going on, anything can be done.”

In the meantime, you could always try using eBay to flog your Facebook or sell your secrets – just don’t expect to make a million.

Would you sell your personal data? Let us know. If you would like to comment on this, or anything else you have seen on Future, head over to our Facebook or Google+ page, or message us on Twitter.

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