There’s a saying about the digital world, “if you’re not paying for a product, then you are a product.” The implication is that many of the services we use every day—Facebook, Google, Twitter, Twitch, etc.—make their money by supplying personal data to advertisers. There’s a lot of truth to that sentiment, with perhaps the only major caveat being that it’s not just companies that provide a free service monetizing personal data; personal data is just as valuable for subscription service providers.
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Your personal data carries immense value for companies, platforms, and criminals for a variety of different reasons. At its core, data is a resource. For all of history, information has held value. From clandestine meetings to strategic positioning, the party that knows the most, that understands the playing field, and adjusts their tactics to that information will come out on top. How your data is used and valued depends primarily on the ambitions of the organization. In this case, our three groups—platforms, companies, and criminals— use that resource in markedly different ways.
Companies like Twitter, LinkedIn, or YouTube that provide users with a place to create their own content—use data as a bargaining chip to support their ad sales. Because these platforms support millions of users every day, they can control who a brand can access based on the advertising investment. And business is booming. In 2020, LinkedIn Marketing Solutions earned more than $3 billion in revenue by providing advertisers access to their 700m + users. Likewise, YouTube hit $6.9 billion in advertising revenue in that same window.
Companies are willing to invest billions in advertising because collected data sets create a clearer picture for where to place those dollars. The right data can define personal preferences, affiliations, sexual orientations, family dynamics, politics, and more to ensure the right message hits the right audience at the right time. For companies, data is an opportunity to better understand the needs, desires, and pain points of an audience and, more specifically, how they can adjust their products, services, and messages to better meet those points.
Criminals steal personal data for a variety of reasons—blackmail, identity theft, extortion—but the most common is to sell that information to anyone willing to pay. These buyers often include other thieves, criminal organizations, data brokers, and even foreign governments. Because theft has no oversight, no accountability, and little overhead, criminals can often sell data points like home addresses for significantly cheaper than a platform or other data broker.
While there’s certainly a shady market for stolen Netflix passwords and phished Facebook accounts, the larger data market is in how platforms and companies work together to maximize the impact of their advertising dollars. Typically, companies use personal data in two ways:
There’s something to be said for specificity. By sharing our age, interests, likes, opinions, and even family dynamics with a social media platform like Facebook, we’re essentially sharing that information directly with their advertisers. Companies use this data to ensure they’re targeting the right individuals with their messages, rather than casting a much wider (and much more expensive) generalized net. For example, a 25-year-old first-time mom is going to respond to an ad targeting pregnant women in a very different way than a 35-year-old mother of three. Likewise, a 22-year-old Middle Eastern male interested in sneakers and stock advice has far more value to a streetwear brand than a 45-year-old white male who likes mid-century modern furniture and tabletop games. Personal data refines the advertising pool to eliminate waste and maximize both user experience and advertising impact.
The more modern of these approaches, large pools of personal data can help companies identify new trends, assess market readiness, and refine product messaging to help inform new products and services. By collecting huge amounts of personal data across thousands of people in the same demographic, companies can identify new market opportunities or interests that they may not have recognized otherwise. This gives brands a chance to realign messages to fit cultural environments and even stop certain product releases until the market shows more favorable conditions. For instance, a brand selling solar panels would benefit greatly from understanding which age demographics respond favorably to renewable energy messaging versus which groups respond to a cost savings messaging strategy.
Each of these methodologies help companies create more sophisticated products and platforms refine their services. Together, internet advertising turned $139.8 billion in revenue in 2020 and has increased those profits by at least 12% since 2018—all off the back of your personal data.
Like any market, the value of personal data fluctuates primarily based on supply and demand. Because there are more females on the planet than males, male data tends to come at a slightly higher premium. Likewise, different markets and demographics are evaluated differently. A 2020 study by MacKeeper and YouGov showed personal data for 18–24-year-olds is notably higher than any other demographic, while businesses have shown a willingness to pay significant amounts for personal data from Black and Middle Eastern audiences. That same discrepancy exists across regions, economic backgrounds, and even education levels based on how much companies value each demographic.
As of May 2021, you can buy access to a hacked Facebook account on the dark web for $65 (or its crypto equivalent), an entire US voter database for $100, and even a hacked Coinbase verified account for $610. By comparison, a brand might value your personal email address at $89 if they’re securing that information through more auspicious means.
Companies collect data in a variety of ways, but regardless of their application, the goal of those methods is typically to help them better understand their audience. It’s only fair that we as consumers understand the value that we bring to the table (and what we stand to gain from it).
It’s worth acknowledging that because health care records often feature a more complete collection of the patient’s identity, background, and personal identifying information (PII), health care records have proven to be of particular value for data thieves. While a single social security number might go for $0.53, a complete health care record sells for $250 on average. For criminals, the more complete a dataset, the more potential value they can get out of it. As a result, healthcare breaches increased 55% in 2020.
Many platforms view their users as generators of data, not people, and because the data is generated on their platform, they own it. This philosophy is in direct conflict with our belief that people have a right to own their data, deserve to know what data has been collected about them and how it is being used, and to relocate or delete that data as they see fit.
If you bank online, use social media, send emails through any large tech platform, then your data is already being shared and sold for profit. It’s time to reclaim its worth and use it to unlock articles and subscriptions instead of giving it away for free.
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