How to sacrifice your online privacy for fun and profit

Should you remain a passive observer, or jump into the action yourself? Welcome to the dark side of the data economy.

You have value--and not just as a good friend, loving family member, and upstanding member of society. You're also a valuable commodity that companies buy and sell. Your age, browsing habits, and friends lists are all hot properties. And yes, all this data is recorded, packaged, and sold to the highest bidder by your favorite websites.

This shouldn't come as a surprise, of course. Advertising is the lifeblood of the Web, and without it we'd all have to pay for content that currently comes to us free. But make no mistake: Every time you surf a modern, advertising-supported website, you relinquish personal information to the site's advertising partners, which use this data to target particular ads to particular people.

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As a result, your private information has real-world value for pretty much every company that buys ads online.

But suppose that you wanted to grab a piece of the data-sharing action? Could you reap direct profit by voluntarily, brazenly giving away your data to the highest bidder? Though big data collection rankles privacy advocates, if you're willing to play ball, you can share data on your own terms for fun and profit.

Everybody has a price

Of course, if you plan to turn a profit on your data, you need to know how much advertisers are willing to pay for it. This is not a new exercise. Published back in 2003, the SWIPE Toolkit is designed to help people understand the value of personal data; and though the data warehouses it draws from are a bit outdated, you can still use the SWIPE data calculator to get an idea of how much your information is worth on the data market.

Plug in the information that you're asked to supply in exchange for a free Google account (birthday, gender, country of residence, mobile phone number, and email address) and the value of your profile adds up to roughly $12.50. Google collects some of that information to help you recover your account in case your security gets compromised. But the company also uses it to improve its services and to target ads more effectively.

Wouldn't it be nice if Google paid you 12 bucks in exchange for that data?

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Perversely, your private information isn't really worth that much unless it's bundled up with similar data about thousands of other people. After all, marketers don't really care about where you live or what TV shows you watch unless they can compare that information against a database of 10,000 other people to understand a specific audience better (and to sell products to it more effectively). 

Still, we can roughly estimate your value in today's big data economy by calculating how much money a given marketer (say, Google) makes from selling your eyeballs to advertisers. The free Privacyfix browser extension analyzes data stored in your browser, and then walks you step-by-step through the varieties of data you're sharing with Facebook, Google, and a truckload of online advertising networks that you've probably never heard of.

Links in the report take you straight to the relevant privacy setting so you can quickly lock down your private info--a convenient safeguard if you're concerned about potential privacy breaches caused by bad guys working with easily accessible data-mining tools like Facebook Graph Search.

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For the purposes of this article, we're concerned about cold, hard cash, and Privacyfix takes a stab at estimating how much money Facebook and Google make off of you every year based on your current privacy settings, the number of ads you see from those services, and what percentage of their revenue comes from online advertising (with the help of the financial analysts at Trefis.) According to Privacyfix, I'm worth more than $600 a year to Google but less than 50 cents to Facebook. The lion's share of that discrepancy comes from Google's significant ad revenue from search, which suggests that search history (what you want) is far more valuable to advertisers than your social graph (who you know).

Still, PrivacyChoice founder Jim Brock is careful to point out that these numbers are purely hypothetical. "I love the idea of users being able to turn a profit on their data, but I just don't think the world is set up for that," Brock says.

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