You pay for many ’free’ services by sharing your personal data with the provider. Facebook is not free because Mark Zuckerberg is an altruist who charitably makes the platform available for everybody. Facebook gets its payment by collecting data about your identity, your behaviour, and your network, and this data is valuable to companies who want to sell something to you. Similarly, many ‘free’ smartphone apps collect data about you. Why does a torch app have to know your exact location, not to mention having access to pictures and files on your phone, the phone’s status, camera, and microphone, and its Wi-Fi connections? Well, it doesn’t – but the producer can sell it on to interested parties. Your data pays for the torch, and many other so-called free apps on your phone. Nothing in life is free, and companies don’t just give away stuff without expecting to get something in return.
So, a lot of things suggest that your personal data is a currency, and indeed, a lot of people will tell you so. You can buy things for your data. In London, there is even a Data Dollar Store now where you can buy mugs, shirts, and the like, in exchange for, for instance, pictures on your cell phone. But is data actually a currency? Not if you ask me.
The Data Dollar Store in London is not meant seriously. It is a publicity stunt for the cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Lab. It is hardly likely that you will ever be able to buy everyday commodities for your personal data. Facebook, Google, and the app producers can sell on your data, but the buyers are only interested if they can use the data to earn real money, typically by selling more products. Unlike a real currency, there is nowhere that you can go and exchange your data for money. And unlike money, you keep your personal data, even if you give it away. This creates an inherent inflation: Every time you give away your data, it loses value, because others have already received it. Actually, you should work on staying relevant to the purchaser by developing yourself, your behaviour, and your network – but you don’t have to, as long as Facebook, and others, can re-sell your anonymised data as if it was new. Old wine in new bottles.
The big question is: When does your personal data cease to be worth anything? At the end of the day, it has to be converted into real money, and if the companies already know what they need to know about you, more data about you isn’t really of any worth to them – and then, they will no longer give anything in return. Companies constantly think of new kinds of data to collect, but the profits are diminishing. Every gigabyte of new data is worth less than the previous gigabyte, but is more difficult to collect or persuade you to hand over. It is possible that personal data will eventually stop being something you can buy things for, simply because the market is oversaturated. It probably won’t happen tomorrow, or next year, but it is likely that, one day, the market for personal data will collapse like a punctured balloon. Or the air will just seep out of the balloon gradually.