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.

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Trading data for cash

He's right. I won't be collecting that $600 anytime soon, because there's no trusted method for individuals to exchange their personal information for Federal Reserve notes. It's not for lack of trying, though. Consider Enliken, a company that creates data exchange systems between consumers (us) and publishers (them). These systems allow publishers to grant access to content based on what personal information you're willing to share. Imagine a paywall like those on websites like the New York Times, except that, before you can read an article or watch a video, you have to answer a question about your shopping habits or provide a bit of personal information.

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"We don't sell your data for money," says Marc Guldimann, founder of Enliken. "We use it as currency instead. It's our job to help people get comfortable trading data." Guldimann is betting that this voluntary exchange of data is better for everyone in the long run: Publishers will get better data about their audience, and the audience gets something it wants in return.

Listening to Guldimann talk about data exchanges is like paging through a dusty copy of Neuromancer, but it's not science fiction. You can already reap rewards for voluntarily giving up your private data. Look no farther than Foursquare, which lets you trade your location data for discounts by checking in at participating retailers. Link your American Express card to your Foursquare account, and you can even get cash back on purchases when you check in at select locations, enabling you, in effect, to sell your body (in the form of a Foursquare check-in that your friends can see) for money.

Of course, $10 is a pittance compared to the money Google is making off our search data. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't mind a cut of that estimated $600. Sadly, though, the best I can get right now is $10 to $15 worth of gift cards from Microsoft in exchange for using Bing.

The Bing Rewards program allows you rack up points for using Bing services, and while it's probably more valuable to Microsoft as a means of luring away Google diehards, it unmistakably establishes a clear exchange system of private data for profit. Earn points by conducting Bing searches, sharing your Facebook account, and pimping Bing to your friends, and then cash those points in for rewards like a $5 Amazon gift card or a month's subscription to the Xbox Music service (a $10 value). It's hardly a get-rich-quick scheme--but given how little Google pays us in exchange for our traffic, I'll take what I can get.

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To trade data more directly, check out Personal, an encrypted data exchange designed to let you securely store and share your private data for profit. It works by separating your (freely submitted) data into discrete "gems" that you can selectively share with specific people, specific companies, or the entire Personal network. For example, you could use it to send medical records to family members, publish your perfect martini recipe to the Personal database, or share your TV preferences with Hulu in exchange for a free month of Hulu Plus.

Personal is still in beta, but it already allows you to commodify data and trade it with other users. Similar services are sure to follow, and if they prove themselves trustworthy and build up a large enough base of users to make retailers take notice, consumers will have the tools to take control of their data and start exchanging it for more than just a handful of coupons. Trading data for goods and services is the future. We're not quite there yet, but we can see it from here.

This story, "How to sacrifice your online privacy for fun and profit" was originally published by PCWorld.

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