Declaring personal data bankruptcy and the cost of privacy

In the digital economy, your data profile has value, but judging from what I watched happen recently in a London shopping mall, a lot of us give it away for free.

At the Westfield shopping center in Shepherd’s Bush, a long line of Britons waited to surrender valuable personal information – demographic details, shopping habits, brand preferences, and more – in exchange for a free bar of chocolate. Really. How did the collector, a prominent British retailer, intend to use this bounty? None of the data donors I observed seemed to care. Not one paused to read the posted privacy disclosure statement.

That could turn out to be one costly chocolate treat.

We’re a society in conflict. On one hand there’s outrage over government surveillance programs and wholesale data breaches. 28% of the online population claims to use tools to disguise their identity or location. 61% of Americans say personal rights and freedoms command higher priority than anti-terror measures. On the other hand, so many trade their identities away for a pittance, or even for nothing – valuing them, wrongly, at zero.

Why are they so ready to surrender their privacy to commercial interests? Especially when their trust is betrayed so regularly due to security lapses, with such damning publicity for retailers, banks, and more usual suspects?

A lot of us voluntarily declare personal data bankruptcy. It’s a big mistake.

What’s personal data bankruptcy? It’s when you declare your personal profile worthless. You want to know how often I go to the movies? What features I like in a new car? What magazines I read? Anyone curious is going to use all that data to make money – so pay me.

Many of us carry loyalty cards. Swipe a card at the grocery checkout, for example, and get the special “club price” on bananas, or a buy-one, get-one deal on noodles. So there’s a little value. But, believe me, it pales next to the value of the personal and transactional data the store compiles.

Some organizations take advantage of the consumer’s perception that his or her data is worthless by actually charging to join loyalty programs. Sadly there’s no shortage of takers. When I bought movie tickets recently, the clerk asked me if I wanted to join the cinema chain’s loyalty program. With free tickets as rewards, it seemed like a fair enough transaction. I was dumbfounded to hear there was a monetary charge for handing over my information – a charge 200,000 other moviegoers had already paid. And this is no isolated example.

Every consumer has equity in the digital data economy. Nobody’s really “bankrupt.” But they have to be less shy about getting what this data is worth. When we fail to assert the value of our personal data we hand its exploiters a free pass.

One alternative is to simply withdraw from the digital economy: go cash-only, pass up discounts and freebies, and share nothing. But that’s not only increasingly difficult these days, it cuts you off from some real benefits of loyalty and personalized transaction systems.

Better advice: be as cautious and hard-nosed about data-sharing as if you were shopping for fresh fish. Who will my data be shared with? How will it be used to shape unique offers and pricing for me? How is it protected? What are the real rewards? If the deal “stinks”, do what you would do if the fish stank. Walk away.

Don’t join the line for chocolate bars. Your data is prized by nearly every business you patronize. They should be lining up for you.

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