Trading Personal Data on the Internet - Elaborating on my interview with "Made in Germany" on DW-TV

The topic of this week episode of Made in Germany is trading personal data on the internet. A topic I have been researching for quite sometime while preparing to launch Teambay. Our first product Teambay Feedback Loop is touching personal data directly and we learned along the way many interesting insights about the German privacy law (Bundesdatenschutzgesetz). One famous regulation for example is that we are not allowed to store clients information on servers outside EU (well, we ended up not storing them online at all, but that's another story). Actually I would say EU countries online regulations are among the strictest in the world.

The duration of the interview was just 3 minutes, a very short time for such a big topic and that's why I decided to also blog about it. Here is a link to the video (sorry in Arabic):

New personal data for companies (no matter what industry) relates directly to making more revenue, either by doing more sales activities or by offering tailored services that in turn bring more revenue. And since our online activities are being registered in details by companies that seek revenue, the war on who can own these data has just started.

On the other hand, governments are struggling to catch up and regulate what companies know nowadays about every citizen. A dilemma for every government between having more privacy regulations that could limit the prosperity of online businesses or loosing more and more control of what companies like Facebook and Google already know.

One famous governmental statement about personal data is by Meglena Kuneva - European Consumer Commissioner in a keynote speech she said:

“Personal data is the new oil of the Internet and the new currency of the digital world.”

Another governmental project that caught my attention is midata from the UK government. Basically they are working with businesses to give consumers better access to the electronic personal data that companies hold about them. The aim is to give consumers greater control of their data. On the project website it is written that companies such as Google, O2 and British Gas are cooperating with the government.

Talking about Britain, my friend Tanja Schomann a Ph.D. researcher at Cambridge University referred me to project of what seems to be a massive personal medical data ownership "scandal" in the UK. In a nutshell, they gather british patients data in a centralised database to better understand the medical records of the patients (See the video below). The interesting part is that they subscribed by default all patients to the service and basically they will be selling these information to organisations with a subscription-based fees. Here is an article on Wired covering and how it all happened.

The Arabic world is not far behind. Probably the only difference is that there is no big social networking companies operating in any of the MENA countries which makes the debate on a different level. Also important to mention that the value of an average Arabic person online information is less than an American or European for various economical reasons.

However there are established companies that have offices with sales and marketing teams who sell you any kind of email or phone numbers list. They even have unique ways to get your data. I remember while I was in Damascus in 2010, I saw once an amazing job offer on classified-ads section (one of the most visited website in Syria). The job description was so good to be true so I was curious to know more. I setup a fake email and applied. Few weeks later I checked that email inbox to find it full of marketing emails from different companies. Clearly, the person who posted that job was aiming to gather targeted emails and sell it for third parties. Another example to get you to submit data would be of course the famous "you are our 1000000 visitor, Click to claim your prize" or the African prince who wants to transfer money to you.. etc etc

Though similar scams are quite old fashion and usually require an act from you. What is really scary nowadays is that mobile companies and internet companies pretty much track every footprint we leave anywhere anytime they can. Interesting story is what Malte Spitz did two years ago when he sued Deutsche Telekom to give him access to all the personal data they saved about him in the last 6 months. At the end they responded by sending him a CD that contains 36000 lines of detailed registry of every activity he did. Scary, isn't it? He even talked more in a Ted Talk about it with reference to how this might and possibly is affecting democracy:

How much your personal data cost?

Mine costs 30 cents! The financial times created a page where you can submit general information about yourself, your interests and profession to get the price of which trading companies would sell your information. In other words, if a company would sell 1000 personal data set that are similar to mine, it would sell it for $300.

And just to mention that the information of one facebook profile is worth 380$. In general, I learned while at the Founder Institute that a social network profile value in average is 100$. In other words, if you are building the next big social networking site and you are expecting 100 million users then your company value would be something around $10 billion dollars.

What is the future of personal data?

Startups like datacoup, handshake in UK, datafairplay in Germany and many more are trying to develop new business model where (in general) you as a user can sign up to be approached by companies, negotiate a price for your personal data, and
decide who to sell it to. The companies pay these startups money to access the users data.

In other words, if these startups managed to succeed (which is still challenge) then we will see transformation of how companies think of users data. Imagine Facebook paying you money for your profile information!

Similar personal data startups and governmental projects like midata are all signs that we are going in one direction. While the user is being more educated about the value of personal data, we will see more tools that bring back the ownership of personal data back to us.


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