Future Tense

How to Measure the Value of Your Personal Data in Cookies: A Slate Guide

This plate of Oreos is worth five digits of your Social Security Number

Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Over the weekend, 380 New Yorkers at a Brooklyn arts festival demonstrated just how much their personal information was worth. Performance artist Risa Puno asked the people wandering past her stand to make a trade: In return for sensitive details about themselves—such as an address, driver’s license number, phone number, or mother’s maiden name—Puno would give them a cookie.

It turns out that either privacy is less important than we thought, or cookies are more important than we thought (always a possibility), because a lot of folks decided they’d stumbled on a bargain. ProPublica explains:


More than half of the people allowed Puno to take their photographs. Just under half—or 162 people—gave what they said were the last four digits of their Social Security numbers. And about one-third—117 people—allowed her to take their fingerprints. She examined people’s driver’s licenses to verify some of the information they provided.


If a festival-goer asked Puno what she wanted the data for, she directed him to her “Terms of Service,” a minutely-printed page of legalese stating her right to disseminate the details as she wished. Some people, she told ProPublica, did not even eat their cookies. They just photographed them. (“They wanted to hold [the desserts] against the sky with the bridge in the background.”) A cookie frosted with the Instagram logo was so popular that Puno required “buyers” to hand over the last four digits of their Social Security numbers, their driver’s license data, and their fingerprints, all of which was totally fine, because who needs a protected legal identity when you have a cookie with an Instagram logo.  


Puno’s conclusion: We do not know how to assess the value of our privacy. Alternately, we may trust that performance artists we just met are not going to do anything fishy with our personal information, as there is nothing more normal and predictable than a performance artist. Or perhaps we just don’t realize our mother’s maiden name and date of birth are exactly the kind of things that can help a hacker break into our banking and email accounts, since they tend to be the answers to security questions.


But the real travesty here is in this sentence, from the ProPublica report: “The cookies … came in flavors such as ‘Chocolate Chili Fleur de Sel’ and ‘Pink Pistachio Peppercorn.’”   


I think you will agree that no piece of information existent is insignificant enough to divulge in exchange for a pink pistachio peppercorn cookie. (Nor does alliteration excuse the promised car wreck of unappealing cookie flavors.) If you plan to sell data for baked goods, at least make sure you get your DOB’s worth. In that spirit, here is our highly scientific guide for how to price the cookie variety against the compromising window into your personal life:


Fresh ginger snap … Name of high school

Lady finger with jam … Mother’s city of birth

Biscoff … One digit of Social Security Number

Oreo … Name of first pet

Pumpkin Spice Oreo … Incorrect name of first pet

Oreo with glass of milk … Name and species of first pet


Oatmeal raisin … Age, give or take a year

Oatmeal raisin you thought was chocolate chip … Random expletive

Girl Scout Samoa purchased from Real Girl Scout … Photograph (flattering)

Caramel cashew … Photograph (unflattering)

M&M … Photograph (nude)

Homemade mint Milano … Last four digits of Social Security Number

Grandma’s chocolate chip … Driver’s license number

Double chocolate with sea salt (aka “World Peace cookies”) … Fingerprints

Chocolate chip oatmeal (any variety) … DNA swab

Warm peanut-butter … Credit card number

Warm peanut-butter chocolate chip … Password to soul

Warm peanut-butter fudge swirl … Location of needle inside egg inside duck inside hare inside iron chest that is the only way to kill you, otherwise you are immortal