Wanna See My Personal Data? Pay Up

By Jane Black As shoppers rev up for the holiday season, many are turning to online auctioneer eBay for unconventional gifts -- a set of Guinness Christmas brew from 1980, a vintage teddy bear, or perhaps a complete set of someone's personal data. Personal data? That's right.

Thirty-year-old London designer Chris Downs recently auctioned 800 pages of his personal information, including bank statements, cell-phone records, and a list of purchases from his local supermarket that includes every item he has bought in the last three years. His auction attracted 422 interested buyers. In the end, Fran Samalionis, another 30-something designer, walked off with the prize. The price: A reasonable 150 pounds or about $240.

TAKING A CUT. A tome of personal data isn't the first thing people look for when they go to eBay, but if Downs has his way, that could change. The designer's auction was the trial balloon for a new conceptual framework for privacy called Loome, which weaves together businesses' desire for customer data with an individual's wish to be compensated for sharing personal details of one's life.

The system makes it easy for individuals to collect their data from multiple sources and then auction it off to the highest bidder. "Every time we buy something or make a phone call, we make data. It's worth something," says Downs. "And yet, we never share in the value of the data."

Although rampant data collection has caused many of us to throw up our hands and surrender, Downs believes the battle is far from over. The fight over privacy is largely about controlling who sees personal information and what they do with it. Getting that control is easier in countries like Britain where the law is on the consumer's side.

THINK CREATIVELY. Downs believes it will also be incredibly important soon in the U.S., where hundreds of outfits collect and share personal information without giving back much in return. If consumers are to wrest control from the collectors, they must think creatively, Downs says. And he and his partners believe that with Loome, they've taken a bold and important first step toward making data pay.

The idea of getting Big Business to pay customers for handing over their data has long been the Holy Grail for privacy advocates. Loome is an early step at a workable model: First, consumers obtain their data from all the businesses that collect it -- the bank, supermarket, drugstore, phone company, whatever. In Britain, citizens have a right to see this information under the 1998 Data Protection Act. Loome provides a simple form to help individuals make their way through the system.

Once all your data are recorded in the system, Loome users simply check off which type of data they're willing to sell. For example, you might sell your mobile-phone records and drugstore purchases but not your banking history. Loome then generates the price that each institution is willing to pay. The bank might offer $20 for the last six months's worth of transactions or $150 for access to the next two years' worth. Your grocery store, in contrast, might be interested in only historical data, so it could pay $35 for the last six months' worth and nothing for future transactions.

MORE CONTROL. The beauty of Loome is that it gives choice to individuals -- and corporations. Of course, in a crude way, this is already happening. We all have a fistful of loyalty cards from grocery stores, pharmacies, and gas stations that grant us discounts in exchange for personal information. But with loyalty cards, you can't choose what data to share and with whom you share it. Once you accept that 10% off, the business has free reign to collect, parse, and sell your information (see BW Online, 6/20/02, "How Grocery Stores Are Feeding Fears").

With Loome, consumers have more control, and corporations get to know individuals' habits in a variety of settings over long periods of time, rather than getting information about someone from just one source or taking a snapshot of 100 people on one day through focus groups -- a traditional consumer-research approach. "We think Loome might be the key that unlocks one-to-one marketing," says Downs. "It creates economies of scope, not scale."

Broad implementation of such a system remains a long way off. Huge technical obstacles remain. And before anything is built, it's essential to test the idea to make sure it's something consumers actually want, designers say. Downs, for one, says he didn't think he'd give a second thought to selling his information -- until it came time to actually do it.

HOW WILL THEY FEEL? The buyer, Fran Samalionis is an acquaintance of Downs. And that made him worry. What would she extrapolate from the immense amount of time he spends on his mobile phone or the menu he put together for Christmas two years ago? "I know he's worried that it will change the way we interact with each other," says Samalionis, who plans to use Downs's data for her own research on new ways to parse personal information.

"Part of this process is figuring out how millions of consumers will feel if they sell their most private data to a big, impersonal corporation," Samalionis says. "Will they feel good that they got paid? Or will they worry about what's being done with it?"

Downs isn't the only one who's worried. The Loome concept has proved controversial among other forward-thinking folks. Take Marcus Gosling, a designer at San Francisco-based outfit IDEO. He fears that if someone like Downs sells a complete set of his data, businesses will use that to interpret the less complete data they've collected on other customers. "Data-mining is about looking for patterns. The more complete portraits corporations get their hands on, the more they can imply about others who choose not to sell," he says.

Downs admits that Loome could be put to nefarious purposes. "We do worry that it could be misused. But that shouldn't stop us from experimenting," he says. "The goal is to create a system where consumers and corporations meet halfway and share information and value." That's a worthy goal for anyone concerned about privacy. Black covers privacy issues for BusinessWeek Online in her twice-monthly Privacy Matters column

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