The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

These companies will pay you for your data. Is it a good deal?

Public sector “data dividends” never took off. Now private companies are paying for data — on their own terms.

A figure holding a phone hits a money box.
(Illustration by Elena Lacey/The Washington Post)
6 min

Tricia Terkildsen is happy to trade information about herself in exchange for deals. She frequently takes surveys online in exchange for gift cards to JOANN Fabric and Crafts.

The Grantville, Kan., resident says questions about her behavior, religion, health, sexuality and politics are fair game.

“They ask that stuff all the time, no problem,” she said.

Opportunities to trade or sell your personal data are on the rise, with the chance to earn up to $50 a month, some companies claim. A new crop of start-ups help brands ask you for your preferences in exchange for a “personalized” experience. Others take it a step further, offering cash or discounts in exchange for more granular information like your location or behavior in other apps.

Market research firm Forrester says about a third of business-to-consumer marketers now go directly to consumers with a relatively cut-and-dried offer: Your data for a deal. Privacy advocates, meanwhile, urge caution to people like Terkildsen when companies ask for risky data like location or health information.

Tapestri, a Chicago-based start-up, offers users cash in exchange for near-constant access to their locations.

“We say: Let Tapestri pay for your Netflix bill, let us buy your next pumpkin spice latte,” CEO Walter Harrison said. “It adds up over time, and you’re allowing us to do that by allowing us to be in your back pocket.” Tapestri pays users about $8 to $25 a month for their data, he says.

Companies paying for data say these types of transactions — known in the industry as “zero-party data sharing” — benefit consumers who, until now, received nothing save targeted advertising in exchange for their data.

But companies aren’t making the offer out of goodwill, say privacy advocates. Rather, advertisers are panicking as traditional sources of data dry up. Apple shook the ad industry when it started allowing iOS users to opt out of some tracking. Google claims it’s getting rid of a tracking technology called cookies, which companies have relied on to follow potential customers around the web. Privacy legislation such as the European Union’s GDPR and California’s CCPA put limitations on companies’ ability to collect personal data. These shifts put advertisers in a pinch — Facebook says it lost significant revenue in 2022 due in part to Apple’s changes — and sent them hunting for new ways to track how people behave. That’s where zero-party data comes in.

“Consumers are becoming more privacy savvy,” said Forrester marketing analyst Stephanie Liu, noting that the less data companies get from creepy tracking technology, the more data they need from users themselves.

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The spirit of zero-party data is a consensual transaction, said Liu. Customers voluntarily share data knowing exactly what it will be used for and what they’ll get in return.

Contrary to their claims, what companies such as Tapestri are offering isn’t power over your data, said Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. They’re simply making the exchange more visible. The user still has very little say over what a company does with their data or how long it gets stored, she said.

Tapestri, for instance, sells location data to third parties and gives you a chunk of that revenue — those third parties could be vigilantes, insurance companies or even your employer, and you wouldn’t know, noted Forrester’s Liu.

Harrison said Tapestri’s buyers are largely advertising and research entities, and it doesn’t knowingly sell to law enforcement. Users can temporarily turn off data sharing if visiting sensitive locations, he said, and Tapestri claims it throws out data around visits to schools, health care facilities or “LGBTQ-sensitive” locations.

Payment-for-data app TIKI says it will present users with contracts from various advertisers and let them decide whether to agree to the terms, said founder and CEO Mike Audi. A contract may ask for access to your behavior across apps in exchange for a 10 percent discount on an app subscription, for example. TIKI doesn’t currently limit what companies can ask for beyond existing legal limits, Audi said.

“Who am I to decide what people should be able to buy and sell in a marketplace?” he said, adding that while he has opinions on what data he’d personally sell to a company, his goal is to create a market where people can decide what data they’d like to share and what payment they’re willing to accept.

TIKI declined to estimate what users could earn or save.

Another start-up, Invisibly, offers access to paywalled news articles in exchange for demographic and behavioral data, including whether you’ve vaccinated your children and your political affiliation. It said it plans to let users trade their data for digital subscriptions worth between $4 and $15 a month.

The app Caden, which plans to give users cash if they’ll pair their online accounts such as Netflix and Amazon, said it expects users to make $5 to $50 a month in the near future.

Meta, by comparison, earned about $9.45 per user in the third quarter of 2022.

In all these cases, it’s tough for individual users to assess whether they’re getting a fair deal, said economist Glen Weyl. In 2018, Weyl, who’s theorized about pay-for-data frameworks in his roles at nonprofit RadicalxChange and Microsoft, and technologist Jaron Lanier argued that people should receive “data dividends,” or returns on money made from personal data. The key, he says, is for consumers to collectively bargain, the same way a union would, for a fair price. Otherwise, corporations amass valuable aggregate data by paying individual consumers a “pittance,” said Weyl.

Setting up a workable way for consumers to bargain is tricky, Weyl said, so businesses claiming to pay for data tend to “ping pong between being exploitative and not very functional.”

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Invisibly president and chief operating officer Michael Orlowski said most people don’t care about philosophical debates around data privacy, since they’re aware their data has already been widely shared for profit. “They just like our product because they can get paywalled content for sharing [data] — and frankly this is better than the current deal where they don’t get s---,” he said.

Caden CEO John Roa said that while individual data points are of little value, Caden helps its users profit by combining those points into a format more usable for advertisers.

As consumers demand more privacy, zero-party data could be an opportunity to give users more control over their data, said advocates and critics alike. Companies paying for data could usher in a fairer, more transparent data economy — or exploitative data collection under a new name.

Terkildsen will go to great lengths to fund her sewing hobby, she said. But sharing her real-time location is a step too far.

“I don’t want them spying on me,” she said.

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