What is your data worth?

by | Sep 23, 2019

How much compensation would you require to give a company complete access to your data? New studies demonstrate that prescribing a price tag to data may be the wrong approach to go about fines for noncompliance. Meanwhile, 51 CEOs write an open letter to Congress to request a federal consumer data privacy law and the Internet Associations joins them in their campaign. At the same time, Facebook is caught using Bluetooth in the background to track users and drive up profits.

Would you want your friends to know every facet of your digital footprint? How about your:

  • Location
  • Visited sites
  • Searched illnesses
  • Devices connected to the internet
  • Content read
  • Religious views
  • Political views
  • Photos
  • Purchasing habits


How about strangers? No? We didn’t think so. Then, the question remains, why are we sharing non-anonymized or improperly-anonymized copies of our personal information with companies? 

Today, many individuals are regularly sharing their data unconsciously with companies who collect it for profit. This data is used to monitor behaviour and profile you for targeted advertising that will make big data and tech companies, like Facebook, $30 per year in revenue per North American user (Source). Due to the profitability of data mining and the increasing number of nine-figure fines for data breaches, researchers have become fascinated by the economics of privacy. 

A 2019 study in the Journal of Consumer Policy questioned how users value their data. In the study, individuals stated they would only be willing to pay $5/month to protect personal data. While the low price tag may sound like privacy is a low priority, it is more likely that individuals’ believe their privacy should be a given, rather than something they have to pay to receive. This theory is corroborated by the fact that in reversing ownership in the question, and asking how much users would accept for full access to their data, there was a median response of $80/month (Source). 

While this study demonstrates a clear value placed on data from the majority, some individuals attributed a much higher cost and others said they would share data for free. Thus, the study concluded that “both willingness to pay and willingness to accept measures are highly unreliable guides to the welfare effects of retaining or giving up data privacy.” (Source)

In calling into question the ability of traditional measures of economic value to determine fines for data breaches and illegally harvesting data, other influential players in the data privacy research were asked how to go about holding corporations accountable to privacy standards. Rebecca Kelly Slaughter, Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Commissioner, stated that “injury to the public can be difficult to quantify in monetary terms in the case of privacy violations.” (Source

Rohit Chopra, a fellow FTC commissioner, also explained that current levels of monetary fines are not a strong deterrent for companies like Facebook, as their business model will remain untouched. As a result, the loss could be recouped through the further monetization of personal data. Consequently, both commissioners suggested that holding Facebook executives personally liable would be a stronger approach (Source).

If no price can equate to the value of personal data, and fines do not deter prolific companies like Facebook, should we continue asking what data is worth? Alessandro Acquisti, of Carnegie Mellon University, suggests an alternative method to look at data privacy is to view it as a human right. This model of thinking poses an interesting line of inquiry for both big data players and lawmakers, especially as federal data privacy legislature increases in popularity in the US (Source).

On September 10, 51 top CEOs, members of Business Roundtable, an industry lobbying organization, sent an open letter to Congress to request a US federal data privacy law that would supersede state-level privacy laws to simplify product design, compliance, and data management. Amongst the CEOs were the executives from Amazon, IBM, Salesforce, Johnson & Johnson, Walmart, and Visa.  

Throughout the letter, the giants accredited the patchwork of privacy regulations on a state-level for the disorder of consumer privacy in the United States. Today, companies face an increasing number of state and jurisdictional legislation that uphold varying standards to which organizations must comply. This, the companies argue, is inefficient to protect citizens, whereas a federal consumer data privacy law would provide reliable and consistent protections for Americans.

The letter also goes so far as to offer a proposed Framework for Consumer Privacy Legislation that the CEOs believe should be the base for future legislation. This framework states that data privacy law should…

  1. Champion Consumer Privacy and Promote Accountability.
  2. Foster Innovation and Competitiveness
  3. Harmonize Regulations
  4. Achieve Global Interoperability

While a unified and consistent method to hold American companies accountable could benefit users, many leading privacy advocates, and even some tech giants, have pointed out the immoral intentions of the CEOs. This is because they regarded the proposal as a method “to aggregate any privacy lawmaking under one roof, where lobby groups can water-down any meaningful user protections that may impact bottom lines.” (Source)

This pattern of a disingenuous push for a federal privacy law continued last week as the Internet Association (IA), a trade group funded by the largest tech companies worldwide, launched a campaign to request the same. Members are largely made up of companies who make a profit through the monetization of consumer data, including Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, and Uber (Source).

In an Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) article, this campaign was referred to as a “disingenuous ploy to undermine real progress on privacy being made around the country at the state level.” (Source) Should this occur, the federal law would supersede state laws, like The Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA) that makes it illegal to collect biometric data without opt-in consent, and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) which will give state residents the right to access and opt-out of the sale of their personal data (Source). 

In the last quarter alone, the IA has spent close to USD $176,000 to try and weaken CCPA before it takes effect without success. As a result, now, in conjunction with Business Roundtable and Technet, they have called for a “weak national ‘privacy’ law that will preempt stronger state laws.” (Source)

One of the companies campaigning to develop a national standard is Facebook, who is caught up, yet again, in a data privacy scandal.

Apple’s new iOS 13 update looks to rework the smartphone operating system to prioritize privacy for users (Source). Recent “sneak peeks” showed that it will notify users of background activity from third-party apps surveillance infrastructure used to generate profit by profiling individuals outside their app-usage. The culprit highlighted, unsurprisingly, is Facebook, who has been caught using Bluetooth to track nearby users

While this may not seem like a big deal, in “[m]atching Bluetooth (and wif-fi) IDs that share physical location [Facebook could] supplement the social graph it gleans by data-mining user-to-user activity on its platform.” (Source) Through this, Facebook can track not just your location, but the nature of your relationship with others. In pairing Bluetooth-gathered interpersonal interactions with social tracking (likes, followers, posts, messaging), Facebook can escalate its ability to monitor and predict human behaviour.

While you can opt-out of location services on Facebook, this means you cannot use all aspects of the app. For instance, Facebook Dating requires location services to be enabled, a clause that takes away a user’s ability to make a meaningful choice about maintaining their privacy (Source).

In notifying users about apps using their data in the background, iOS 13 looks to bring back a measure of control to the user by making them aware of potential malicious actions or breaches of privacy.

In the wake of this, Facebook’s reaction has tested the bounds of reality. In an attempt to get out of the hot seat, they have rebranded the new iOS notifications as “reminders” (Source) and, according to Forbes, un-ironically informed users “that if they protect their privacy it might have an adverse effect on Facebook’s ability to target ads and monetize user data.” (Source) At the same time, Facebook PR has also written that “We’ll continue to make it easier for you to control how and when you share your location,” as if to take credit for Apple’s new product development (Source).

With such comments, it is clear that in the upcoming months, we will see how much individuals value their privacy and convenience. Between the debate over the value of data, who should govern consumer privacy rights, and another privacy breach by Facebook, the relevance of the data privacy conversation is evident. To stay up to date, sign up for our monthly newsletter and keep an eye out for our weekly blogs on privacy news.

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