In today’s age of information, data is currency. Information about our preferences, habits and everything in our life is a valuable commodity for companies trying to learn more about us in order to make us their customer. The value of our personal data seems to rise every day.
If our personal data is valuable, shouldn’t we guard our privacy more closely? If we are giving away information for free, how much are we getting in return? Data for services is the business model for both Google and Facebook. They provide you a free service and in return, they mine your data to drive advertising revenue. The question people don’t seem to be asking is this, “Is the average consumer aware of the value of their information to make an informed decision?”
Paying for Privacy
AT&T recently offered its high-speed Internet service, GigaPower, to customers at a discount if they allowed AT&T access to their Internet activity. The price tag that they put on that privacy was at least $29 a month. Few people will pay that premium as they don’t necessarily know how much data is being collected. Many may not even know about that payment option due to the convoluted sign-up process.
Is privacy worth $29 a month? Is search data worth $350 a year? Microsoft and Google have fought expensive battles over search data. Google even launched Google Plus to capture more personal data -- an expensive investment. When you look at the amount of money that companies are investing to capture personal data and the amount they charge people to maintain their privacy, do we even truly know how much our personal data is worth?
Keep in mind that the $29 was just for Internet access. Consider what happens afterwards. People access "free" email, file sharing, social networks, music streaming and other services that all collect data. Many of these services don’t even offer an option to pay for data privacy, they just promise to stop using the data to serve targeted advertising.
The Ever-Growing Terms of Service
Have you read the complete Terms of Service (ToS) for iTunes? Facebook? Twitter? Any service that you use on a regular basis? Do you know the last time the ToS changed and how it changed?
If you are like most, you simply click “Accept” and proceeded to use the service.
The South Park episode, HUMANCENTiPAD made fun of the ever lengthening ToS for Apple by showing some outrageous consequences for Kyle for clicking “Accept” after not reading the ToS. The first act of the episode really drives home the fact that Apple could hide almost anything in their ToS.
You Tasered my Dad!” -- Kyle
You said we could.” -- Apple Mafia
Here in the real world, LinkedIn is being sued by a group of members who claim that LinkedIn has been hijacking their email accounts. This is an interesting case because the actions taken by LinkedIn were covered in their User Agreement, even if not specifically called out. LinkedIn’s response to sending emails to the plaintiffs friends and family repeatedly asking them to join LinkedIn? Essentially, “You said we could.”
How can consumers balance the value of their data with the desire for inexpensive services if they cannot understand all the ways that their data can be used?
Pay for Control
The reality is that people are in no position to determine the value of their data. I know that my data is valuable but I cannot even begin to put a fair price on my personal data. We have to acknowledge that privacy is becoming a luxury that comes at a cost, if it is not already beyond recovery.
Organizations need to be completely transparent as to how they use data and alert consumers when that usage will change. Even if consumers cannot opt-out of the changes, they should be permitted to opt-out of the service.
Consumers -- that would be everyone reading this -- need to look at the providers with whom we interact, including associations and online stores like Amazon. We need to determine how our data is being used. If a clear answer cannot be found, there may be a reason behind it that we won’t like. If there is a paid version of a service, consider using it.
We are all part of the information economy, or at least our personal data is. We need to make sure we aren't selling ourselves cheap.
South Park image from South Park Studios