Intelligent Machines

A Stock Exchange for Your Personal Data

Companies already make billions because they know our online habits. What if we could take a cut?

Here’s a job title made for the information age: personal data broker.

Today, people have no choice but to give away their personal information—sometimes in exchange for free networking on Twitter or searching on Google, but other times to third-party data-aggregation firms without realizing it at all.

“There’s an immense amount of value in data about people,” says Bernardo Huberman, senior fellow at HP Labs. “That data is being collected all the time. Anytime you turn on your computer, anytime you buy something.”

Huberman, who directs HP Labs’ Social Computing Research Group, has come up with an alternative—a marketplace for personal information—that would give individuals control of and compensation for the private tidbits they share, rather than putting it all in the hands of companies. 

In a paper posted online last week, Huberman and coauthor Christina Aperjis propose something akin to a New York Stock Exchange for personal data. A trusted market operator could take a small cut of each transaction and help arrive at a realistic price for a sale.

“There are two kinds of people. Some people who say, ‘I’m not going to give you my data at all, unless you give me a million bucks.’ And there are a lot of people who say, ‘I don’t care, I’ll give it to you for little,’ ” says Huberman. He’s tested this the academic way, through experiments that involved asking men and women to share how much they weigh for a payment.

On his proposed market, a person who highly values her privacy might chose an option to sell her shopping patterns for $10, but at a big risk of not finding a buyer. Alternately, she might sell the same data for a guaranteed payment of 50 cents. Or she might opt out and keep her privacy entirely.

You won’t find any kind of opportunity like this today. But with Internet companies making billions of dollars selling our information, fresh ideas and business models that promise users control over their privacy are gaining momentum. Startups like Personal and Singly are working on these challenges already. The World Economic Forum recently called an individual’s data an emerging “asset class.”

Huberman is not the first to investigate a personal data marketplace, and there would seem to be significant barriers—like how to get companies that already collect data for free to participate. But, he says, since the pricing options he outlines gauge how a person values privacy and risk, they address at least two big obstacles to making such a market function. 

The first: how to put a realistic dollar value on any given bit of personal data so that people will find it worthwhile to sell and buyers won’t be spending prohibitively huge sums.

And second: how to sell “unbiased data” so buyers can use small samples of people to infer information about larger populations. An example of this problem can be found in Huberman’s own work: thinner people were more likely to share their weight for a low sum than those who were heavyset. So a pharmaceutical company developing a weight-loss drug wouldn’t get the best data if it purchased only the cheapest data.

Giving people control on a trustworthy market could encourage more and new kinds of data to be shared, says Huberman. For example, a person might feel comfortable putting an anonymous health record on the market after visiting a hospital, or sharing automobile GPS locations to help cities decide where to build new roads.

This is all theoretical, but HP Labs, the research arm of Hewlett-Packard, is filing a patent for the model. But seemingly far-out concepts are okay with Huberman. The idea that technology businesses should be interested in social behavior seemed strange only a decade ago, he notes.

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