‘If you’re not paying for the product then you are the product.’ It’s an expression that’s older than the internet so it predates all our current data woes.
But it’s hard to think of a phrase that more neatly encapsulates them.
The internet has changed everything in almost no time at all, so it’s entirely understandable that we’re all still scrambling to catch up.
So, for a long time, we felt like the customers of Facebook, of Twitter, of YouTube and all the other online services we accepted for free and then came to rely on.
In fact, if you’re like me, you might even feel slightly irritated that LinkedIn charges a fee for its premium service – I am so used to everything being available at no charge online that it stands out when it doesn’t.
Now, after the Facebook scandals and the sudden press attention on who is using our data and how, we’re starting to realise that what we thought was free is being paid for. And that even if we knew there was a price, we have significantly underestimated it.
The only thing that can halt this exploitation and manipulation of our data is if we recognise its real value. And that means recognising that if a service is free, it’s being paid for by us somewhere.
Data is money
The expression used to be that ‘time is money’ but that was before the algorithms became so clever.
Now they can rip apart your data in moments and use their deductions to sell to you, drive your clicks to certain pages, encourage you to remain even longer on the website and even assess your political leanings. Some people say even manipulate your political leanings.
It’s data that’s money now. Yet we all walk around this very modern world positively dripping our data over everything we interact with.
That’s not just because we’re telling Facebook our product likes and dislikes, our social groups, our locations, the places we’re visiting and eating at, and even our most intimate secrets and relationships.
We’ve become primed to expect to pass on our data for the most minor of causes. Many shops ask for email addresses when you pay, ostensibly to send you an e-receipt.
I’ve been in a number of chain stores where they ask for your postcode and even address.
Now, even setting aside the security risk of sharing private data out-loud, you need to think about why the retailer wants your data.
They don’t want to provide you with a handy, convenient way to store your receipt in case of problems. They want to send you adverts or follow-up questions that glean even more data, or to beg for online reviews.
Sometimes they will offer you a small something in return; perhaps an entry into a prize draw in exchange for a few details.
But if we all valued our data as we should then that we’d recognise that it’s worth far more than a single ticket in a lottery we’re unlikely to win.
No, they want your data because it is valuable – retailers and other businesses know that and we as customers need to recognise it too.
Spend it wisely
If we value our data properly then we can start ‘spending’ it more wisely.
So, I might well decide to give Facebook some of my details in exchange for the chance to keep up with old friends and colleagues, or to share my HILARIOUS thoughts as I re-watch Friends.
That platform has real value for me and so I think I’m comfortable with sharing a little of my data in exchange for that.
I don’t mind some targeted advertising; I like receiving adverts for clothing and educational children’s toys more than I like receiving adverts for cars or meat hampers.
But once we value our data properly we will also demand that a major player like Facebook informs us how it will use it, and only does so in an appropriate way.
Personally, I have deleted a great deal of my more sensitive data from the platform already.
When we value our data properly, we won’t hand it over to the cashier at a till any more than we would hand them a fiver if we were asked.
If we do online surveys it will be because we are gaining something of value, something we genuinely want. If we provide financial details to fin-tech firms it will be because they offer us a valuable service in exchange.
We have to think of our data as something that we spend.
What’s it worth?
I shouldn’t need to persuade you that data has value; the enormous value of Facebook is hinged not just on access for advertisers to its billions of customers but targeted access.
A 2018 piece of research revealed that criminals will spend almost £280 for your PayPal login. That makes sense of course: a fraudster can rob you by accessing your PayPal account.
But research from Top10VPN.com also showed that criminals can buy Match.com logins, Instagram logins, even Skype logins.
That’s because they can use the data you hold in those accounts to socially engineer ways to rob you, potentially steal from your friends and even set up fake credit accounts in your name.
Yet that’s the kind of data that a lot of us give away to companies even before we can be sure they are trusted to protect it.
Data is the currency of the web and we need to spend it wisely and in controlled ways rather than simply hurling it around, effectively giving it away for free.
We also need to demand the government ensures firms keep their promises to protect it and don’t endlessly sell it on.
Because, while it might be the currency of the internet, it’s not like money. If you give it away you won’t become poorer but companies that do not have your interests at heart will become much richer, and you may not like how they do that.
What do you think? Do you value your data? Are we customers partly to blame for being too casual with our personal information? Share your thoughts using the comments below.