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What if someone offered $6,495 for your private data? Would you sell?

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What follows is a fictionalized vision of a possible future filled with Data Exchange Networks (DENs) designed to bring the process of private data collection out into the open.

February 5, 2029

As a fractional research scientist, Lynn Thomas uses her talents to aid a number of clients – from University labs who need an extra set of eyes on experimental design, to corporate R&D departments conducting optical glass experiments, to startups working on new protein-based sweeteners. In 2028, she managed six retainer clients (including one startup where she took equity instead of cash) and felt like she earned a good living. 2029 looks just as good.

But her experience working for an energetic founder infected her with the startup bug. Lynn has had her own idea for a new type of photovoltaic paint since she first read about the idea as a graduate student.

It’s time, she thought. She needs to put up or shut up.

The problem is money.

It’s always money with startups, and that’s especially true in the hard sciences. At this early proof of concept stage, she doesn’t need much money, but enough to purchase the synthesizing equipment, raw materials, and lab time. She figures about $4,000 will cover it ­– $5,000 to be safe. She’s too early for angel or venture capital funding. She’s also too early for legit crowdfunding sites. They want a promise of a deliverable at the end. She’s doing some early stage science. She has no idea if anything will come of her work. It’s too risky. She is on her own.

How will she do it? Take on another client? No. She’s already maxed out. And if she does, she won’t have the spare time she needs. Luckily, she has another option. Thirty years ago, she might have begged friends and family for the spare cash she needed to fund her startup.

In 2029, she has the option to sell her private data.

#

Lynn Thomas prides herself on her rational mind. It got her a scholarship to a private high school, internships at the National Institutes of Health, two master’s degrees paid for by corporate sponsors, and a Ph.D. from Oxford. Still, selling private data on a Data Exchange Network (DEN) still seems a bit sketchy. She had a friend who used one … that DEN ended up selling his data to a dating site, much to the chagrin of his partner. Other DENs are known for bombarding you with advertising. Most DENs don’t pay very well. It’s the last fact that’s the real problem.

But one does pay well: The MENSA DEN.

Perfect, she thought. MENSA made the decision ten years ago to begin cashing in on its membership base. However, they couldn’t simply sell member data. Not only was their data set not as detailed as they thought it might be, their average member was too smart to let them do it without getting paid. (Makes sense, huh? They are MENSA members.) So, MENSA cut a deal: You let us market your data to interested parties, and we will share the revenue with you. Members decide what to share (and what not to). A sophisticated auction market will determine the prices paid. It’s smart, fair, and rational.

Lynn was a MENSA member. That meant she could give the MENSA DEN a try. What did she have to lose?

#

“Siri, open the MENSA DEN,” Lynn said.

“Okay, Lynn. I found it,” the automated voice replied. “The MENSA DEN checked your records and confirmed that you have an active membership in the MENSA organization, but not a DEN account. They say you need to complete a profile before you can enter the marketplace. Do you want to proceed?”

“What kind of information do they want?”

“I’ll check. They say they want some basic demographic information, most of which you already provided in your organization membership. Specifically, they’re missing your current physical address, gender identifier, biological gender, and family status.”

Ugh. Lynn thought. That’s already more personal than she was hoping for. But she swallowed her discomfort and continued. Eye on the prize she thought.

“Ask them what security measures are in place.”

“Good question, Lynn. It seems like they anticipated that. I have a full encryption schematic you can view on the main screen. It’s similar to the one you and I use to communicate: Two-stage blockchain with polynomial and fractal encryption. It’s not perfect, but the task of breaking it would require a dedicated government-level quantum super-computer running for 82.5 hours. The risk of a breech seems reasonable.”

“Agreed. Let’s go. But set a reminder to change our MENSA DEN credential password every 60 hours or so.”

“Smart precaution. Done. I’ll now open the secure link.”

Lynn proceeded to share her physical address, her gender identifier (her/her’s), her biological gender (female), and family status (living alone, no children).

Deep breath, she thought. I’m in.

#

“Okay Lynn, the MENSA DEN found seven offers for you to consider. I’ve posted them to your mobile screen. Where would you like to start?”

Hmm, Lynn thought.

That’s more options than she imagined there might be. Siri asked a good question. Where do you start on a journey like this? You’re selling a part of yourself to the highest bidder. “Social media” seemed like the easiest place. Fewer people share personal details on those sites, especially since Facebook imploded. Today, most people use any number of “Virtual Reality” or “VR” social networks to meet up with friends around the world. You have to pay to use most of those. What could they want? Lynn thought.

“Let’s start with social media. I’m interested in what they’re offering,” Lynn finally responded.

“Good choice, Lynn. The first is a scientist-specific VR meetup group. They were founded in Kuwait and have been trouble attracting female members. Your profile fits their criteria and they are willing to bid $12.50 per month for you to log in at least three times for 30 minutes each during the month.”

Lynn did the quick math. $12.50 for 90 minutes was less than $10.00 per hour. More to the point, it would take 33 years to make the $5,000 she needed. But perhaps there was other value to be had. Maybe she could build relationships with other scientists and collaborators along the way?

“Siri, go ahead and counteroffer with $30.00 per month, same time commitment.”

“Understood. I’m submitting the bid now.”

There’s no way they’ll…

“Response received. They countered with $25.00 per month for four sessions. They’ll pay the first month in advance.”

Better. Not great, but better. Lynn considered for a moment.

“Go ahead and accept that offer. Let’s keep looking.”

“Okay, let’s move on to an easy one,” Siri responded. “I have 15 businesses in your area that will provide discounts for dinners, events, and performances if you allow them to track your physical location whenever you get within 10 miles of their facility. I’ve added the list to your mobile screen along with a map overlay of your typical travel patterns. Only six of them overlap.”

Lynn examined the map. Siri was right. Six of the 15 were in her daily routine. She touched the screen in four places.

“Let’s go with these four,” Lynn decided.

“Confirmed. Where to next?”

Another good question. So far, Lynn realized she only accepted offers for $25 (per month, yes, but only $25 today) and four dinner coupons. Not so good.

“Siri, let’s re-sort the list from largest potential revenue to smallest.”

“Okay, I finished re-sorting your list. The largest opportunities are in the health information category. I’ve taken the liberty of cross-referencing the opportunities list with your private genetic workup. The results are on the main screen.”

Lynn looked up. Ah, there we goHere’s the bigger money. She examined the details on the screen.

The first opportunity was a breast cancer clinical study based on her unique BRCA variant gene for $3,250. She would be part of a control group, meaning she wouldn’t have to do anything other than keep doing what she was doing. And as a bonus, she would get to read the resulting research.

The second opportunity was a pharmacological study on a synthetic cannabis derivative. This one was a “double-blind” study, meaning she would not know what she was getting, and neither would the researchers. There was a link to a 32-pagedisclosure and waiver document. They were offering $2,750.

The third was a biofeedback device that used light therapy to lower cholesterol levels. Since she inherited a gene that correlated with high-LDL levels from her mother, the researchers would double the normal payout of $750 to $1,500. She would need to use the device as directed (and tracked via an IoT connection) for three months and complete twice-monthly blood tests.

This was a tough decision. If she said “yes” to all of them, she would have all the money she needed…and more. But they weren’t created equal, and none would accept counter offers. It was a “take it or leave it” situation.

“Okay Siri,” Lynn said after a long minute. “Let’s accept the gene study and the biofeedback device. I’m not comfortable with the risks in the cannabis study.”

“Understood. The contracts are accepted. You will receive detailed instructions via a VR-mail later this week. Should I give the cannabis study authors the reason for your rejection?”

“Sure, tell them I’m not comfortable with the risks of not knowing what I’m getting. They could have been more clear, up front, on protections.”

“Understood. Feedback submitted. If they answer your questions, are you willing to reconsider?”

“No, I don’t think so. Mute their responses.”

“Will do.”

Over the course of the next 20 minutes, Lynn walked through a number of other auctions and offers. Siri knew Lynn was a “gig worker” and removed any explicit job offers disguised as information sharing. Lynn did consider one that was essentially a beta test of new lab software … but she had enough on her plate. She instructed Siri save that one for 30 days.

One interesting organization wanted her complete purchase history of all food and beverage products for the past 18 months. They offered $300, but Lynn negotiated the initial offer and closed the auction at $445. What the heck? It was just “food” and not “all purchases,” so the risk was low. And besides, they offered to share research findings with her that we personalized to her habits. She didn’t need to lose any weight, but she has been working on improving her muscle density. Who knows? Maybe she’ll learn something useful.

Three religious organizations wanted her to donate her information so they could better profile target members. She turned them all down.

The political organizations were a different story. The two major parties wanted free information (another “no”), but science-focused interest groups wanted her research notes to write up case studies to teach young people about the scientific method. They had a grant from the National Science Foundation, and they were offering $425 per unpublished lab book. She was under NDA with two of her five projects that qualified, but she accepted the others.

#

“Ok, Siri. Where are we at?” Lynn asked.

“I calculate $6,495 in total accepted contracts, with $25 per month continuing until you cancel the VR meetup group participation with the Kuwaiti-based organization. Do you want to continue and expand your search?”

“No, that’s all for now. Go ahead an exit the MENSA DEN, but remind me to check back in 90 days.”

“Will do. Signing off.”

Lynn felt a sign of relief. She had more than enough capital to begin her work – almost 50% more than she needed. She remembered the advice of a graduate advisor: Always assume your research will take twice as long and cost twice as much. If you do, you’ll be covered. She didn’t quite get to twice her initial figure, but she felt good.

“Ok Siri, let’s go shopping for lab equipment…”

#

Obviously, this is a thought experiment. Lynn Thomas isn’t a real person (yet). It’s not 2029 (yet). Privacy isn’t explicitly for sale in this way (just yet…or is it?).

I have a message for entrepreneurs reading this and wondering how the brokerage service could earn trillions of dollars as the secure intermediary in these transactions: Why aren’t you working on it?

I have a message for consumers reading this and wishing they could finance their dreams using assets they already own…but would be willing to sell under the right circumstances: Why wouldn’t you?

And finally, I have a message for all those tech leaders who feel that consumers will continue to give away private information for free because of your “unicorn” technologies: They won’t.

Lynn’s world is coming. It’s about time we all caught up.

#

About Jason Voiovich

Jason’s arrival in marketing was doomed from birth. He was born into a family of artists, immigrants, and entrepreneurs. Frankly, it’s lucky he didn’t end up as a circus performer. He’s sure he would have fallen off the tightrope by now. His father was an advertising creative director. One grandfather manufactured the first disposable coffee filters in pre-Castro Cuba. Another grandfather invented the bazooka. Yet another invented Neapolitan ice cream (really!). He was destined to advertise the first disposable ice cream grenade launcher. But the ice cream just kept melting!

He took bizarre ideas like these into the University of Wisconsin, the University of Minnesota, and MIT’s Sloan School of Management. It should surprise no one that they are all embarrassed to have let him in.

These days, instead of trying to invent novelty snack dispensers, Jason has dedicated his career to finding marketing’s north star, refocusing it on building healthy relationships between consumers and businesses, between patients and clinicians, and between citizens and organizations. That’s a tall order in a data-driven world. But it’s crucial, and here’s why: As technology advances, it becomes ordinary and expected. As relationships and trust expand, they become stronger and more resilient. Our next great leaps forward are just as likely to come from advances in humanity as they are advances in technology.

If you care about that mission as well, he invites you to connect with him on LinkedIn. If you’re interested in sharing your research, please take the extra step and reach out to him personally at jasonvoiovich (at) gmail (dot) com. For even more, please visit his blog at https://jasontvoiovich.com/ and sign up for his mailing list for original research, book news, & fresh insights.

Thank you! Gracias! 谢谢!

Your fellow human.

Jason Voiovich
Jason Voiovich Contributor

Author, writer, consumer historian, humanist, journeyman, intellectual honey badger, more at jasontvoiovich.com.

I invite you to connect with me on LinkedIn, read my articles on Medium, and make sure to sign up for my mailing list at https://jasontvoiovich.com/ for original research, book news, and fresh insights. 

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