Sell Your Data. Earn Passive Income. What Could Go Wrong?

Your data is not property. It’s a piece of who you are.

Photo illustration of digital 0's and 1's in a wallet.
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photo by interstid/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

The Facebooks and Googles of the world are getting rich off your data. Market researchers at PwC estimate that in 2018, companies that collect personal data to use for targeted advertising brought in $178 billion in revenue. Data brokers last year earned a further $21 billion. And these numbers are only trending up. By 2025, PwC expects the global data economy to be worth more than $400 billion.

So it’s about time we get in on the action, right?

Enter the so-called data exchange, a new breed of tech startup promising to cut us in on a share of the vast wealth being created by the sale of our personal data. Billing themselves as disruptors of a top-heavy and exploitative industry, these companies promise to build platforms where we can collect, store, and ultimately sell our browser histories, Fitbit analytics, bank statements, Instagram posts, Spotify habits, and all the other data points that drop from us like skin cells and hair follicles as we go about our lives.

Each startup in this nascent economy has staked out a niche. Streamr wants to let you sell data in real time—every lane change in your Tesla and adjustment to your smart thermostat can be added to the aggregated data sets it will offer to corporations on a subscription basis. A company called UBDI (it stands for Universal Basic Data Income) brings analytics in house, selling only the insights it can glean from its users’ data rather than the data itself. And Ocean Protocol is on a mission to sell your data to A.I. companies, “equalizing access to data for all,” as its website announces, so megacorporations like IBM and Microsoft won’t be the only kinds of companies with access to massive stockpiles of our personal information.

In return, you’ll get some crypto tokens that might be worth something one day if enough of us decide to sell access to our lives. That’s because the data exchange market doesn’t actually exist yet. Though a number of these companies have already launched, data is only valuable in aggregate, so these startups will need to attract users—and lots of them–before they can start compensating people in any kind of meaningful way. Until then, all we have are the hopeful predictions of evangelizing entrepreneurs like Roger Haenni, the co-founder of a startup called Datum, who vaguely estimates our data might be worth about $2,000 a year, though others have put the number much lower. Not to mention that many potential buyers in this market are currently awash in free data and have no trouble recruiting volunteers to give up intimate personal information for very little, as Facebook recently proved by offering e–gift cards of $20 per month to young people in exchange for permission to monitor all the data passing through their phones.

Jaron Lanier—author, tech philosopher, and pioneer of virtual reality—has been an outspoken critic of the way platforms like Google and Facebook exploit their users, and he’s advocated for a reciprocal model in which users pay for the services they receive while also being paid by these sites for the content they contribute. In considering future markets in which individuals might sell their personal data, Lanier sees potential but says, “You can’t really have viable capitalism without organized labor, because then everyone ends up working almost for free.” Rather, he told me, “The way this would have to work is the people who are giving data have to be able to form into organizations in which they collectively bargain, so that they have power, and it’s not just a bunch of individuals against a tech giant.”

Many of the entrepreneurs behind these exchanges see themselves as building infrastructure for the kind of collective bargaining Lanier has in mind—and they, too, are thinking of data in terms of labor. Shiv Malik, for example, head of communications and strategy for Steamr, told me that he views the current structure of the data economy as analogous to the inequality decried by the Occupy movement: 1 percent of tech moguls control 99 percent of data wealth. “We’re all info slaves,” he said.

According to this view, the picture you post of your daughter blowing out candles on her birthday cake, the route you take on your morning commute, the amount of time you spend standing in front of a display at the mall—all of it is the fruit of your labor, a commodity just lying around, waiting for someone like you (or Apple, or Amazon, or Google) to pick up and exchange for cash.

The problem is that the kind of data these companies want you to sell is not just some inert commodity. It is not the product of your labor. It is the product of surveillance, and surveillance is a tool of manipulation. Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism spends 700 pages making just this point, examining how our personal data has been weaponized against us by profit-driven corporations in ways that entrench inequality, damage our interior lives, and undermine the foundations of democracy.

Although discrimination on the basis of race and gender is illegal, the more metrics these companies can use to track us, the more legal opportunities they have to identify and further disadvantage marginalized communities for the sake of their bottom lines. The example of health insurance companies raising premiums for customers who are struggling financially is perhaps the most flagrant instance of big data being used in discriminatory ways. But subtler examples, like findings that advertisements for junk food are overwhelmingly targeted at black and Hispanic children, speak even more explicitly to Zuboff’s warnings about the harmful ways in which our data is being used to shape our culture.

When I spoke to Dana Budzyn, the 23-year-old wunderkind CEO and co-founder of UBDI, she acknowledged the ugly results of selling data to advertisers. But she says that selling anonymized information to market researchers (as UBDI will) is different because the focus is on understanding trends rather than targeting individuals, and companies might use the information in ways that benefit society. Budzyn suggested, for instance, that a firm researching transportation trends could pay people through her app to share data that would be used to enhance their local transit systems.

And it’s true. In the right hands, our data can yield invaluable insights for researchers and policymakers. The Apple Watch’s ability to identify and track Parkinson’s symptoms is a promising use case of exactly that potential. But when money starts to enter the equation, Budzyn’s aspirational argument collides headlong with the facts of how our data is actually being used by the corporations of the world we live in—namely, to sell us shit, mitigate financial risk, and increase ROIs.

These commercial data exchanges extend the exploitation inherent in the current system by incentivizing passivity. The model is one in which an individual’s agency extends no further than saying, Yes, I consent to sell this amount of my data to this company for this reason or No, I will keep this information private. The assumption is that our identities are like land in which a mineral deposit has been found: Data exchanges offer us the chance to sell mining rights.

A truly ethical data market would be one in which contributors have real agency. Jaron Lanier proposes that such a market would allow you to sell data that is “beautiful and unique to you,” and which reflects something you can become excellent in and proud of. He imagines, for example, a collective of gardeners who sell data that helps program gardening robots others can buy—data, in other words, that actually does represent the fruits of labor.

Sadly, today’s emerging exchanges are a long way from the markets Lanier hopes for. But the good news is that this new wave of startups is still in its infancy, still agile and able to adapt. Or still young enough to die and be replaced by a better model. A model, perhaps, that rewards our good actions rather than buying our acquiescence.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.