Santa Clara University

Your Online Privacy

Information about You = $

By Irina Raicu

"If you are not paying for it, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold." --Anonymous comment on community weblog

You may not know it, but information about you is being sold and bought right now. Data brokers amass lists (or databases) of individuals' personal information and sell them to advertisers—or whoever else is willing to pay. Online advertising is now a $32 billion industry, and "targeted" ads—those directed at you on the Personal Info = $basis of some information that the advertiser knows about you—are apparently more effective than universal ones; because of that, advertisers are willing to pay for different bits of information they can get about you.

According to an article in Smart Money magazine, for the "value of one person's data to a data broker or ad firm, estimates range from a fraction of a cent for a single piece of data to $5,000 for a full digital profile."

In other words, you are in fact paying for many of the "free" services that you get on the Internet: for searches, for email, for social networking, for many "free" apps. You pay with data--by giving the providers of such services information that they can then sell to data brokers or directly to advertisers.

The Smart Money article adds that the World Economic Forum has described personal data as the "'new oil,' a valuable resource of the 21st century that's fueling a new wave of economic activity."

So, congratulations: you are the owner of an "oil" well! Or, perhaps, a sheep that allows itself to be shorn periodically by people who understand the value of the wool. Either way, it is important to realize that the personal information that you provide online is a commodity. The next step, then, would be to ask yourself how much information you are willing to trade for various services.

In an article called "Privacy as Property," law professor Lawrence Lessig envisions a system in which,

by protecting the right of an individual to hold his [privacy] property until he or she chooses to alienate it [i.e. sell it or give it away], different individuals get to value different bits of privacy differently. I may be a freak about people knowing my birthday, and so would never 'sell' access to that fact for any price, but someone else might be willing to sell access in exchange for 100 frequent flier miles. The advantage of a [privacy-as-property] system is that both of our wishes get respected, even though the wishers are so different.

Up to this point, many companies have been collecting data about us without asking us, and often without letting us know ahead of time that they do so. Uninformed consumers cannot make rational choices about what they are willing to disclose, in return for which services. Increased public awareness, and an increased call for legislation against certain uses of personal information, may make such data collection practices a thing of the past.

Discussion Questions

Which bits of your personal information are more valuable to you? Which bits do you think advertisers might value most?

Are there "pieces of data" about you that you would never sell? Why? Take a look at this brief video clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F7pYHN9iC9I&feature=youtu.be

Is it unethical for companies to track people online for advertising purposes? Would your answer change if the companies doing such tracking were to ask the users' permission ahead of doing any tracking? Before answering those questions, you might want to review "A Framework for Thinking Ethically."

Even information that you "donate" for non-commercial purposes can be bought and sold: hackers can get unauthorized access to databases and then turn around and sell the information they have stolen to the highest bidder—or misuse it for their own purposes. Does hacking affect the type or amount of information that you're willing to disclose online?

Irina Raicu is the Internet Ethics Program manager at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.
June 2012

Photo by 401(K) 2012 under Creative Commons.