Your personal data is worth less than a latte, according to … you.


Starbucks coffee > personally identifiable information. (Jason Alden/Bloomberg)

A team of researchers based in Italy recently set about answering a timely, and difficult, question. We all know that our personal data, from the calls we place to the Web sites we visit, is increasingly tallied and tracked. But how much is that information actually worth? If we had the chance to sell our own personal data — those precious pearls of privacy that everyone’s always griping about — what would we sell it for?

Not much, it turns out: Roughly 2 euros, or a measly $2.72, a pop.

locations
A sample question from the study. (Staiano et al)

To come to that number, social computing researchers from several companies and academic institutions — including Google and the the European telecom giant Telefonica — had to set up a pretty complex experiment. First they recruited 60 participants into the study and gave them smartphones that logged their calls, locations, app use, and photos. Then they watched the participants for a six-week period. Once a week — and later in the experiment, once a day — they invited participants to sell their personal phone data, either in its raw or processed form, back to the lab.

The actual mathematics and mechanisms of the sale were a bit complicated. (They involve something called “a reverse second-price auction strategy,” which we shan’t get into here.) But essentially, the researchers asked participants one key question: What’s the lowest price you’re willing to accept for your data?

That’s wildly personal, of course — much like the data itself. Aptly, then, the researchers noted quite a bit of variation between participants and data categories.

People consistently felt that their location data was worth more money than other types of information, particularly when they travel a lot. They also charged more for their data on days that varied from the routine — an Italian feast day, for instance, and the day of a storm that blocked roads. Intriguingly, people who use a lot of apps, and thus generate a lot of data, tend to value their data less. (Perhaps because they’ve already given up, the researchers guess.)

All told, the bids ranged from less than a single euro to as many as nine or 10. But the median was just 2 euros — less than the price of a grande latte in most corners of the world.


The median values participants assigned to their personal data, by day and data category. Location data was consistently the most expensive. (Staiano et al)

So are we undervaluing our data? Are we overvaluing it? In current market terms, at least, the average person’s data is worth significantly less than 2 euro — last year the Financial Times reported that “general information,” like your age, gender and location, is worth .0005 cents to data brokers. Granted, comparing that kind of vague demographic info to personally identifiable mobile data is a bit of an apples v. oranges play. But even companies that claim to empower consumers to sell mobile and web data have been unable to demonstrate much higher values.

We’ll know for sure if/when this kind of personal data marketplace ever leaves the laboratory and hits the real-life interwebs. Google’s Rodrigo de Oliveira was one of the authors of the study, suggesting the Internet giant is at least intrigued by this kind of operation. Some day soon we could all be auctioning off maps of our travels and logs of our calls for $3 a pop.

So, er — lattes all around?

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Caitlin Dewey · July 10