Selling Your ‘Digital Soul’

Physically invisible and conceptually hard-to-grasp, data is both omnipresent and hidden from the public eye. Personal data—including name, address, phone number, browsing history—is quietly collected and brokered for profits at almost any opportunity available. Only now is the business of selling data becoming common knowledge, with those concerned about privacy using VPNs or services that refrain from collecting personal data. However, instead of avoiding your data from being sold by unknown companies, could there be a way to put the selling power into the hands of the people?

Data collection on the internet is becoming more widely known. A growing number of individuals have noticed freakishly accurate advertising while surfing the web. For instance, maybe you are online shopping for a new pair of shoes: you first go to Google, maybe type in something like “black sneakers,” and click on one of the first results that come up. Then, you shop around the website, add something to your cart, ponder the price, and decide against buying the new shoes after all. Curiously, a couple hours later, you receive an email from the website reminding you that your cart has an item in it. Additionally, maybe the next time you go online, unrelated to shopping, you see advertisements for sneakers on every website you visit. Many agree that this form of advertising is less of a subtle suggestion, but more of a clue that we are being watched. 

Essentially, every time you interact with technology, you are leaving behind traceable and collectable information. All the websites you visit, all the shoes you browse for, all of the items in your cart—regardless of whether you purchased those items or not—are all monetizable pieces of data. This trace data is made more valuable when attached to a profile: your age, demographics, and location. With both types of data linked together, companies are able to perform analytics on what is selling and to what demographic—something incredibly useful and valuable to businesses. 

As mentioned earlier, it is well known that your data is being collected and sold on the internet. A large majority of people know and accept the reality of this for what it is. Others may not want their information tracked and make attempts to protect their privacy. However, a small handful of people are wondering: “If my ‘valuable’ data is sold for money, how do I get my fair share of it?” 

Through what means can we make money off of our own data? One article outlines how a man sold his own data for cryptocurrency in return. More commonly, some companies offer gift cards to individuals who allow them to track their spending and take surveys regarding their interests and demographics. A similar well-known company is Honey, which automatically applies coupons to any online purchases you make and collects revenue through a  commission off your purchase or by tracking data. So for anyone who is interested in selling their data, there are means in which they can, although it is unlikely that they would get hard cash in return. 

With all this in mind, maybe there are some reasons why you wouldn’t want to actively sell your data. First and foremost, you are sacrificing your privacy and anonymity (although this may be happening already without anything coming your way in return); even if it may seem like only certain companies will see your data, there is always a possibility that personal information will be compromised or leaked. One of the more visible and frustrating consequences is you may be more likely to receive spam calls, emails, and text messages from unknown or malicious entities. Overall, the business of selling your own data is relatively new, with long-term or future consequences that aren’t fully understood. 

Although easier said than done, individuals should feel empowered to make their own decisions regarding their data. Informed decisions are difficult to make when tech companies often leave the public in the dark, either accidentally or for their own benefit. Nevertheless, whether you try to protect or sell your personal data, strive for a greater understanding about how technology uses your data.