Datacoup: Selling Personal Data in the Age of Acxiom
Last thursday, Datacoup officially opened its personal data marketplace for every internet user. While it was in beta for two years, it is now possible for you to to sell the records of your online activities to the New York based start up. In short, you can sign up on the website, connect the online services you are using and define what information you want to share. Datacoup supports all the major social media platforms and even credit card companies. Depending on how much you reveal about yourself, you can sit back and earn up to $10 a month via PayPal. While many companies, of which Facebook is a prime example, give you a free web service for submitting your personal details, Datacoup seems to be the first one to offer real money in exchange for information. As it states:
It’s about time you earned more than a ‘free service’ for your data. Datacoup is the only company that helps you sell your anonymous data for real, cold hard cash. It’s simple. If you connect data, you’ll earn.
You could ask yourself whether it is sensible to sell your personal information, but it also raises the question of how Datacoup can make revenue of your data, since the information already seems to be owned by ‘free services’.
After signing up on the Datacoup website, an overview of services you can connect to your profile shows up. These include social media platforms Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Foursquare, Google+, Instagram, Tumblr, Last.fm and Meetup, but also credit card companies. The website explains that “every data attribute has a high, medium or low value given to it”. This value is determined by the current demand in the data marketplace for that attribute. The price for your data is the sum of all your active attributes. While Datacoup states that it has not found its marketplace yet, it assures that the potential purchasers of your data can not trace it back to you:
Purchasers of data have access to a large pool of aggregated, de-identified, anonymous Datacoup user data. For example, when you start selling your data, we combine it with all the other Datacoup users’ data, take out anything personally identifiable, and then analyze the large pool, looking for patterns across different demographics and other data characteristics. None of this aggregated data can be traced back to a particular individual user.
The biggest aggregator of online data at the moment, Acxiom, shows a comparable transparency about its activities as it has set up the website About the Data to tell you what happens to your personal data. However, Acxiom does not pay you for your data. As About the Data says, it “aggregates it from surveys, registrations, purchases, postings, etc”. Moreover, the company explicitly states your data is used for “organizations to make relevant offers to you, they need data to identify products and services you might be interested in”. In short, Acxiom takes your data for free and uses it for individual targeted advertisement, while Datacoup pays you money for sharing information and guarantees privacy. This is a curious difference that raises the question whether Datacoup’s early stage business model is feasible, as it is unclear what is unique about its database. It is hard to tell what information is already pulled out of your personal data as Acxiom’s description is quite vague, just as Datacoup’s disclaimer can not tell you exactly what you reveal about yourself.
In 1968 Alan Westin did a significant writing on consumer data in which he defines privacy as “the claim of individuals, groups or institutions to determine for themselves, how, and to what extent information about them is communicated to others” (Westin 166). In the age of online platforms however, it is hard to talk about privacy, as the very use of social networks already seems to give much of it away. It is easy to understand that social networks offer free services in exchange for data, as former Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson states: “Free offerings build audiences with distinct interests and expressed needs that advertisers will pay to reach” (Anderson). The fact that already much personal data is no longer private makes is questionable if Datacoup can regain its cashed out fees with a supposedly untraceable data pool. Whether the start up will go down or not, you might just as well make the most of it while you can, by selling your data for $10 a month instead of giving it away for free.
Anderson, Chris. “Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business”. Wired Magazine 16.3 (2008).
Westin, Alan F. “Privacy and freedom”. Washington and Lee Law Review 25.1 (1968): p. 166.