Home > data science, economics, musing, news > The market for your personal data is maturing

The market for your personal data is maturing

June 11, 2015

As everyone knows, nobody reads their user agreements when they sign up for apps or services. Even if they did, it wouldn’t matter, because most of them stipulate that they can change at any moment. That moment has come.

You might not be concerned, but I’d like to point out that there’s a reason you’re not. Namely, you haven’t actually seen what this enormous loss of privacy translates into yet.

You see, there’s also a built in lag where we’ve given up our data, and are happily using the corresponding services, but we haven’t yet seen evidence that our data was actually worth something. The lag represents the time it takes for the market in personal data to mature. It also represents the patience that Silicon Valley venture capitalists have or do not have between the time of user acquisition and profit. The less patience they have, the sooner they want to exploit the user data.

The latest news (hat tip Gary Marcus) gives us reason to think that V.C. patience is running dry, and the corresponding market in personal data is maturing. Turns out that EBay and PayPal recently changed their user agreements so that, if you’re a user of either of those services, you will receive marketing calls using any phone number you’ve provided them or that they have “have otherwise obtained.” There is no possibility to opt out, except perhaps to abandon the services. Oh, and they might also call you for surveys or debt collections. Oh, and they claim their intention is to “benefit our relationship.”

Presumably this means they might have bought your phone number from a data warehouse giant like Acxiom, if you didn’t feel like sharing it. Presumably this also means that they will use your shopping history to target the phone calls to be maximally “tailored” for you.

I’m mentally tacking this new fact on the same board as I already have the Verizon/AOL merger, which is all about AOL targeting people with ads based on Verizon’s GPS data, and the recent broohaha over RadioShack’s attempt to sell its user data at auction in order to pay off creditors. That didn’t go through, but it’s still a sign that the personal data market is ripening, and in particular that such datasets are becoming assets as important as land or warehouses.

Given how much venture capitalists like to brag about their return, I think we have reason to worry about the coming wave of “innovative” uses of our personal data. Telemarketing is the tip of the iceberg.

  1. June 11, 2015 at 9:51 am

    TD Bank has started using Acxiom as their marketing arm and is licensed to issue credit cards for them, that news came out a couple months ago. We live in Duperville USA and I have no clue what it will take to wake up the consumer…In the news today at Verge, Tech Start Up Companies just making up their revenue numbers.

    Last night a tip off from a pharmacist that said they are now getting lists of patients with “star ratings” on their medication compliance. They tag you with this stupid FICO medication score (and there are other scoring analytics out there too) and the pharmacists have to call everyone on the phone who has less than a 5 star rating and report back all their results. They are being told told they need to work on changing the consumers behavior.

    As I keep saying we have a real problem today with people confusing virtual world values and the real world and as long as that exists, the data selling and continued acceleration of inequality keeps growing, aka the Attack of the Killer Algorithms.


    I caught a few minutes of the Senate testimony on electronic medical records yesterday and I wanted to puke. I got to see one Senator hold up a credit card and say “this is where I want to keep all my medical records” and then said holding up the credit card, “we can start with this and work backwards”…WTF is that? It’s what we have making laws and it is scary.


  2. June 11, 2015 at 10:07 am

    For cranky old farts like me this is nothing but good news. I cannot wait to scream a loud “fornicate elsewhere” at any naive marketer that dares to call me. I’ve found that if you become more trouble than you are worth word gets around quickly and people stop bothering you. The key is to be an unrepentant and merciless asshole: in today’s “big data” world there’s not much of a downside.


  3. June 11, 2015 at 10:16 am

    ditto (what John said)


  4. noneya
    June 11, 2015 at 4:37 pm

    This is definitely annoying – because I’m already paying both paypal and ebay a pretty penny. At least google provides their services in exchange.

    Someone suggested a vision of future to me at some point (which I hope is likely), where most of these companies wouldn’t even want to deal with the mess that personal data presents (yes, it can be profitable, but it’s also a growing liability), and instead a few personal data storage companies would emerge that would simply provide whatever company X needs in accordance with whatever policies the user sets (similar to permissions you give to various apps on your devices).


  5. Walter White
    June 11, 2015 at 8:17 pm

    Of course I had to provide my name and email to comment here. Should I assume Mathbabe has some evil intention? Or could it be that the more a company knows about me the more they can pre populate forms and provide me more accurate search results or better meet my needs without my own personal effort every time? More and more often data is used to help the masses not hurt them. Most people would gladly allow their data to be used if they get compensated for it. That’s what is happening and why services like Facebook and Google are free. You can have my data because I like free. If you use it to my disadvantage I will simply switch to another vendor. It’s a fair bargain.


    • June 12, 2015 at 9:13 am

      You could have provided a fake email address and name.


      • frank timothy
        June 12, 2015 at 9:44 pm

        That’s dishonest.


        • June 12, 2015 at 9:52 pm

          People do it all the time. As long as the comment is relevant and respectful, I’m fine with it.


  6. June 11, 2015 at 8:34 pm

    I’m doing this with Zato Novo. It’s actually a way to reduce the total number of advertisements that people are hit with. The key is to offer a tangible benefit to users and change the power balance between individuals and businesses.


  7. June 12, 2015 at 7:57 am

    Fortunately, I live in a jurisdiction (Norway) where they can’t get away with this. At least, after a quick look at the updated PayPal user agreement as it applies to me, I don’t find this clause. It would be against Norwegian (and EU?) law if it were there. But for all the rest of you, yes, that sucks.


  8. June 12, 2015 at 9:44 am

    Thank you for writing about this! My husband and I just launched a new tool to help individuals take back their digital rights: http://www.myuseragreement.com
    It allows you to dictate your terms of service to any company you deal with. But we need critical mass! Please share and encourage everyone to join us. We think there is power in numbers and only then will companies be forced to treat us fairly. If anyone is interested in why we should care about our personal data please see our new book “All You Can Pay: How Companies Use Our Data to Empty Our Wallets.”


  9. June 12, 2015 at 12:54 pm

    Why you guys care? If someone wants to track you and find all your secrets they will do, and unless you do not use any of the online services our days you got no chance. For me the options are 2 either live in the woods or just ignore the crap you are offered daily, it is just the life it is atm and I really do not see a chance to fight those big corporations.


  10. June 13, 2015 at 12:38 am

    I had a thought here on getting consumer awareness going and maybe it’s a good idea and maybe not but after that 2 hour conversation I had with that mad as hell pharmacist (not at me but at the data issues) we could start a campaign and it’s easy enough for all to maybe understand…ok so here’s the deal…

    Every time we go to fill a prescription we should ask and demand to know how many stars we have “scored” to us by the medication adherence scoring software? It’s simple enough that I think anyone can get it and we could make a point. The pharmacist was just beside himself having to review a list of patients with one to five stars next to them..he went to school to fill prescriptions and advise and not become a behavior manipulator was the comment made to me. The second part of this deal too is that the pharmacists get graded as well on how they can improve the patient star ratings…so they have some skin in this nonsense too.

    Of course a good pharmacist is going to talk to us and answer questions and help people with understanding their prescriptions but can we knock off the stars? Of course, those scores, being they are now quantitated get sold too. FICO medication scoring though even goes beyond stars with rating anyone from zero to 500 by just having your name and address and God only knows what they pack in there as it’s of course all proprietary and nobody can replicate for accuracy, but FICO makes money selling these scores to drug companies, insurers, you name it.

    By the way FICO is not the only company doing this, United Healthcare has their Optum software subsidiary doing the same thing, how convenient when they also insure people and own a pharmacy benefit manager (and just bought another PBM) where they can control everything.

    Medication adherence scoring has always been a big secret so maybe we could blow it out of the water and demand our stars:) It felt good writing this anyway:)


  1. June 18, 2015 at 2:17 am
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