How to protect your privacy and make money doing it

Companies like Allow and Personal are making a business out of letting you sell your personal data to 'carefully selected' marketers.

Sounds like an infomercial doesn’t it? You too can enhance your privacy and make money from the comfort of your own home. No, you don’t have to stuff envelopes, sell Amway products, or become a money mule for Eastern European scam artists.

You can do it by selling your information to “carefully selected” marketers, just like a zillion Web sites do. A recent Wall Street Journal article by Julia Angwin and Emily Steel discusses two firms that are enabling their customers to do just that.

London-based Allow Ltd. acts as a different kind of data broker – one that negotiates with marketers on your behalf and cuts you in on the deal. Of course, the only way to make that model work is to make your data scarce. So Allow first removes as much of your personal information as it can from the many many marketing databases where it resides. It’s helped in this by the UK’s Data Protection Act, which requires data brokers to remove you from their lists if you ask politely.

[ See also: Google wants your face ]

(In the US, most large data brokers like LexisNexis, Intelius, and Acxiom let you opt out, but it’s a voluntary process filled with bureaucratic speed bumps. Smaller data brokers? Good luck even figuring out who they are.)

Per the WSJ, Allow customer Giles Sequeira made almost $10 just for letting one credit card company know he’s in the market for new plastic. I know – $10 sounds lame. But think about how many credit card offers you get from companies you don’t want to do business with and how much time you spend shredding those offers. (You do shred them, right? Because otherwise you’re risking identity theft by some dumpster diver.) Now imagine not only getting paid to be solicited – while reducing your risk of ID theft -- but also getting to choose who does the soliciting. And the company that’s paying you knows you’re actually a viable customer and not some shmoe who’s shredding their offers, so they get a much better return for their marketing investment.

Doesn’t that sound like an intelligent thing to do?

On this side of the pond, a US-based company called Personal is starting a similar pay-me-for-my-data-you-soulless-marketing-weasels service. Though it’s not commercially available yet, you can sign up for a waiting list at its site. (Watch this space for more news about Personal as it develops.)

This could absolutely work here as well, though the opt out process would be a bit harder. Why? There are two truisms at work.

Truism #1: With the exception of certain 20-somethings who believe the entire world wants to see them drunk and bare-assed on the InterWebs, most people really want to protect at least some of their personal information, even if they don’t quite know how. (As for those 20-somethings who don’t care? Talk to me in 10 years.)

Truism #2: Nobody wants to pay extra for privacy. There’s a reason why Craigslist and Wikipedia and Facebook are so damned popular, and it’s because they’re free. We are a nation of cheapskates (and I know, I’m one of them). But getting paid for sharing your personal data? That’s a whole other ballgame.

In fact such schemes exist today, in a really annoying half-assed kind of way. That’s what all those spammy “win a free xBox/iPad” emails are all about – you essentially sell your personal info for a slim chance at winning one of these uber gadgets by filling out dozens of affiliate offers. The a$$#ol3s! who run these sites rake in bucks each time you hand your data over to an affiliate -- well in excess of the cost of an xBox. You end up selling out for fractions of a penny, relative to the time you’ll spend filling out each offer and fending off spam and telemarketing calls that result from the data you just shared. Why not make actual money without all the hassle? Seems like a no-brainer to me.

And oh, by the way, all those people who keep saying “privacy is dead, get used to it”? They just want you to continue giving your information away for free. That game is strictly for suckers. Your and my personal data are worth quite a lot to marketers. It’s time we all made something on it, too.

Readers interested in the personal data of ITworld TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan should send $1000 in cash and a self-addressed stamped envelope to him via this blog. Personal checks not accepted. The rest of you cheapskates can just read his geeky humor blog eSarcasm (Geek Humor Gone Wild) or follow him on Twitter:@tynan_on_tech.

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