It’s harder to stop the spread of your personal data than to clean up glitter. It’s everywhere. It sticks to everything you touch. Every time you open a page, move a mouse, or click a button, the mess gets bigger. Trying to keep track of your data spread (or even storing it in one spot!) is incredibly difficult. And unless you were asleep for the whole Cambridge Analytica ordeal, you realize that there are computers—and people behind them—who are profiting off of your constant data spillage.
Here’s another metaphor: your phone is like Santa Claus. It knows when you’re sleeping, and it definitely knows when you’re awake. It even knows what you want for Christmas, judging by the number of times you Googled and re-Googled “Nintendo Switch cost.” Uber notices you’re staying home from work today, Google Fit deduces you must be relaxing. And Instagram might be pretty certain when you’ll post a sick-day selfie with a mug of tea. Your digital self is actually quite a complete picture: your race, age, job, sexuality, habits, interests, dislikes…All of this is measurable, and more importantly, easy to predict. And with prediction, unfortunately, comes manipulation. You might make the choice to buy generic cold medicine over name-brand today, but there’s a chance a conveniently-placed Facebook ad could’ve changed that.
All these companies making money off things you do inadvertently. And most of the time, you have no idea what they’re even doing with your data. What’s a poor, sick, data-dropping gal to do? Well, you could sell your data yourself, actually. The online data shadow we cast is so similar to our real-life selves: it’s complete with our wants, fear, needs, insecurities, and wishes. It’s an extension of ourselves—so why shouldn’t we have control over it? That’s the idea behind the creation of services like DataWallet, DataCoup, and BitsAboutMe: platforms for leveraging your data for money. Control is the main point here: having all of your data in one spot, and then deciding if you want to sell it. So, how does it work? First, you allow your chosen service access to your various accounts and devices (using APIs—the same way some websites let you comment using Facebook, or post from Instagram). Second, you form a data profile where you can track your data from one spot. Third, you choose to share, hide, or sell your data.
Most of the time, you check “agree to the terms & conditions” written in 8-point type and that’s it. You’ve signed away your keystrokes and scrolling patterns and shoe size and travel history and peanut butter preferences (crunchy Jif forever!). Understandably, more and more consumers are starting to have a problem with the fact that our internet giants have grown into empires from this stuff. There’s a feeling of injustice— real sovereignty would mean full ownership of even the smallest bits of this information. After all, it’s important: don’t forget that seeing only 150 of your Facebook likes gives computers more insight into your personality than your real-life friends: control of your online data could mean control of not only your shopping habits, but your relationships, and politics.
In our savvy hands
Luckily, the newest generation of internet users is pretty wary of this data trade. The cultural shift it will take to get our data independence is not so drastic; these new data-peddling websites and GDPR regulations are proof of the new wave of consumers and policies. The big data technology certainly isn’t going to slow down any time soon. But our digital empowerment just might: if we have control of our data, maybe we can choose to put it to use to develop technology that helps instead of manipulates. Efficient algorithms, super-reliable AI… with this new money-making opportunity, we just might have the incentive to make it all happen.
You’re good at making trails of your personal data online. And as they say, “if you’re good at something, never do it for free”! More people are selling the personal data they sign away not only as a method of gaining back control over their digital selves—and making a buck or two in the process.