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What Is Your Privacy Worth?

Emmy Harbo

Principal, Darkhorse Geospatial

Surveillance is everywhere, continuously collecting our private information. Cameras and biometric sensors capture our faces, retinas, and fingerprints. Radio Frequency Identification chips—small as a piece of rice—track the whereabouts of products, pets and people. Satellites map almost everything from crop yields to our soldiers on battlefields.

Physical surveillance is so prevalent that we hardly notice it anymore. But what about surveillance that isn’t as obvious as a camera at the ATM? That’s cyber surveillance.

Stealing Privacy

Cyber criminals are constantly creating better ways to invade our privacy. Personally Identifiable Information is their Holy Grail. PII is a person’s name, social security number, medical, financial information, etc.

Social media users post plenty of data that enable hackers and spammers to easily find PII to answer security questions, like the place/date of birth and one’s mother’s maiden name. Such PII can be sold to criminals to stalk or steal the identity of a person. Social media is also a new playground for old tricks including phishing scams and malware via email or apps.

Profiting on Privacy

While cyber-crime certainly exists, cyber surveillance for profit is much more pervasive. Our personal information revealed via tweets, Facebook, blogs, email and Internet browsing is chock full of data that is useful to companies looking to make a buck.

Sadly, The Washington Post reports that even if you are a savvy Internet user, the “supercookie” makes it almost impossible to find privacy on the Internet. Per the report, Verizon is tracking all Internet activity of its 100 million cellular customers using supercookie technology, which monitors sites their customers visit. Verizon then catalogs their tastes and interests and can sell this information to data brokers.

The data brokers, in turn, make $2 billion a year selling massive amounts of data on search histories and browsing habits to marketers/advertisers—who not only have information for marketing decisions, but also have the ability to link all of this data to a user’s true identity, a process called “de-anonymizing.”

Critics say Verizon will likely be sued for two violations. (1) Violating the Communication Act, which prohibits carriers from revealing identifying information about their customers, and (2) the Federal Wiretap act, which prohibits altering personal communications during transmission without consent or a court order.

profiting on privacy

The data brokers, however, are given carte blanche, as data privacy is not highly regulated. The U.S., as opposed to most other countries, does not have a federal law that protects data privacy, so individuals are left to protect themselves.  To remedy this, FTC Commissioner Julie Brill is leading the charge by pushing Congress to a pass data privacy law that requires transparency for data brokers. The law will allow customers to view and correct data broker profiles about themselves and to opt-out of marketing.

Speaking at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School earlier this year, Brill said “I believe we should be concerned about the damage that is done to our sense of privacy and autonomy in a society in which information about some of the most sensitive aspects of our lives is available for analysts to examine without our knowledge or consent, and for anyone to buy if they are willing to pay the going price.”

Government & Privacy

While technology is ahead of regulation in the private sector, the government operates by a set of stringent rules enacted by theForeign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978.

FISA was created in response to President Richard Nixon’s use of Federal resources to spy on political and activist groups—a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Eleven judges constitute the FISA court and must review and approve search warrants by the FBI and Intelligence Community. The warrants are against suspected foreign intelligence agents or terrorists inside the U.S., and surveillance may begin only after a warrant is granted.

Not all of our online information is used for purposes of draining our wallets. The government uses social media and crowdsourcing data to anticipate and/or detect significant events with the aim to protect our national security and wellbeing.

Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency created a program called theOpen Source Indicators which aims to “beat the news” by anticipating major global events such as political and humanitarian crises, mass violence and disease outbreaks.  The program fuses large amounts of publicly available datasets to develop indicators that may predict future events. For example, a higher number of canceled restaurant reservations on the website Open Table may indicate a larger health emergency.

Sell your Privacy

Back to the data brokers and advertisers, who don’t play by FISA’s rules. To avoid them you could unplug your devices from the Internet and move to a cabin deep in the woods. Or, you could sell your data.

Three innovative, new companies—DatacoupHandshake and Meeco—will pay you for information about things like your favorite band, NFL team and running shoe. Each company works differently and your rewards differ depending on what company you go with.

According to an NPR article entitled “Privacy or Profit,” Datacoup will pay depending on how much information you share—for example, you may make $8 a month for letting Datacoup’s API gather information from your Twitter or Foursquare profiles. With Handshake you negotiate a price for your personal data directly with the companies that want to buy it, making you the data broker for your own data. Meanwhile, Meeko has a private cloud where you store your information and when share your brand preferences, you might get a 50 percent discount on a pair of jeans.

While the pay is meager, you sell only the data you feel comfortable sharing. Some say these service companies won’t be successful until the data privacy laws are enacted. And that is a very likely given the current status of customer discomfort with marketing cyber surveillance.

Even if online privacy turns out to be a zero-sum game where the cost of using social media means that data brokers and marketers make huge profits, at least users can now make a little profit off data that is theirs to begin with.

Emmy Harbo

Principal, Darkhorse Geospatial

Emmy Harbo is a principal and cofounder at Darkhorse Geospatial.