Amazon recently offered its users $10 to part with their personal information, in return for installing Amazon Assistant. The browser extension allows the company to analyse someone’s web-browsing habits more widely and in more detail than ever before. The idea of being paid for your data raises a number of interesting questions, hardly any of which have clear answers.
Why should a company pay for your data when they can have it for free?
This looks like a customer empowerment gimmick. $10 isn’t a life-changing sum but could give people taking up the offer the feeling that they are in control of their data and are being compensated for being tracked online. However, unless someone adjusts their browser settings and other preferences appropriately - the vast majority of people don’t - their online behaviour will be tracked anyway, and they will be served ads and other content based on that behaviour.
So it would be a mistake to believe that those only those taking up the $10 offer will be tracked and that those that don’t won’t be. Everyone will be tracked unless they take active measures to prevent this, or don’t use the service in the first place.
How much is your data worth?
Although we have had data protection law in the UK for well over 30 years, there is still not much ‘science’ in terms of assigning monetary value to personal information. For example, the ICO’s proposed British Airways fine works out at about £360 per person/record involved. They haven’t revealed the factors and science behind this calculation – if there is any at all - and of course travel/financial details and on-line browsing data are not similar comparators.
But arguably online browsing behaviour - the sites you visit, the links you click, the amount of time you spend on a particular page - produces a detailed mind-map. Surely that warrants a monetary value far higher than $10? Of course this would depend on the breadth and duration of the monitoring taking place – and on its commercial value to the companies carrying it out.
Are people going to go on data-strike?
There have already been cases of individual service users banding together on social media to prevent their service providers from using their personal information - and in some cases even anonymised information derived from it - for purposes that are not necessary to the provision of the service. I remember hearing of a telecoms provider using phone signal tracking to help the Department for Transport to plan traffic-calming measures (similar to the recent plans from TfL). Some customers objected to these plans and the project was shelved. In the future, we may see more consumer objections of this sort.
We may also see more cases of service users demanding ‘their cut’, as it become more apparent to them how intensively their online behaviour is being monetised. The industry certainly has very advanced means of calculating the monetary value of someone’s online behaviour – that’s how real time bidding works. Did you realise you were being auctioned? Maybe we should auction ourselves and will see more services like CitizenMe – which allows people to earn money through completing consumer attitude surveys. At least that way you do know what information you’re providing and do get ‘your cut’, or some of it.
How sustainable is ‘the model’?
Analysing personal online behaviour and using that to categorise people and to target advertising at them is the model underlying many online services we all use daily – search engines for example. Widespread consumer activism, refusing cookies, using privacy settings effectively, not using ‘intrusive’ services or those involved in a data breach could certainly harm the business model.
Most people won’t take those measures, but regulators could tighten the screws in terms of secondary use of consumers’ personal information and civil liberties bodies could become more influential – we are seeing that already. Tech companies and others will probably put more energy into privacy enhancement and data protection as a means of appeasing concerned consumers. We may also see more services requiring subscription payments – as is increasingly the case on phone apps – no ads, no tracking, but you have to pay to use the service. Privacy does come at a price.
Participants in the deal agree to install Amazon Assistant, a price-comparison function that hooks onto to web browsers, enabling Amazon to track the websites that the customers visit, as well as elements of page content that they view. With a consumer’s approval, the retail giant can then harvest data to improve marketing, products and services.