For Sale: My Data

I've been coming across news articles recently about some new firms who are offering consumers the opportunity to sell information about themselves. Paul Davis, the CEO of one of these firms in the U.K. recently told NPR in an interview: "The way we see it, your data belongs to you. So if someone should be making a profit on it, it should be you." Makes complete sense, right? After all, we know that we are being tracked all the time. Our phones are broadcasting where we are at any given time. Our online activities are used for targeting ads. Social media sites like Facebook already know a lot about us, and they also track us as we surf the web.

Given the number of firms already making money off of the data we provide and generate as we go about our daily lives, it seems only natural that the next step is for us to start profiting as well. This got me wondering about what types of data I would be willing to sell to a marketing firm. Would I be willing to sell my online social media activity? What about my location? What about my financial information? These questions led to further questions. Would I be more willing to sell my past data or the data I'll generate in the future? And what if instead of selling my data, I could buy it? Would I pay a firm so that my data would be hidden from marketers?

Rather than just idly wonder about the answers to these questions, I decided to run a poll at the Georgetown Institute for Consumer Research, which allowed me to get answers from a bunch of people (over 1000 in fact). I presented survey participants with a scenario describing a company that was giving consumers the opportunity to sell their data directly to marketers. For half the participants, this referred to their past data. For the remaining participants, this referred to their future data. The participants were told that consumers would be able to select what categories of information they would be willing to sell. If they chose to sell the data from a particular category, then all their data in that category would be provided to the company. The participants then saw five different categories of information and were asked to check all the categories that they would be willing to sell. So participants could pick anywhere from zero to all five categories.

The chart below shows the percentage of respondents who selected each category. The top half has the percentages for the participants who were told they'd be selling their past data. The bottom half of the chart has the numbers from the participants who thought they'd be selling their future data.

There are several interesting things going on here. First, there's a great deal of variation in the willingness to sell data. For instance, most consumers seem to be willing to sell data about their online purchases. Perhaps because they feel this information is already available to at least some firms? In contrast, data about one's location or finances is not up for grabs with very few participants indicating they'd be willing to sell this information. Third, there's little to no difference between the past and future scenarios. In other words, people are as willing (or unwilling) to sell their past data as their future data.

If consumers seem generally unwilling to give up certain categories of their personal information, could firms make money by giving us the opportunity to protect our data? I gave a different group of survey participants slightly altered scenarios in which they could pay "a large amount of money in order to protect information about themselves and NOT have it be available to any corporate entity." For half the participants, this meant that their past data would be protected, while the remaining participants were instructed that this would refer to their future data. All the participants were then presented with the same five categories and asked to select all the ones that they would want to pay to protect. The chart below shows the findings.

As before, there is considerable variation across the different categories and the temporal nature of the information (past versus future) had no effect. The two categories of information that consumers were most willing to pay to protect were data about their location and finances. Now these were the same two categories that consumers were the least willing to sell. That suggests that consumers are not only unwilling to sell these types of data, but are in fact willing to pay a significant amount in order to protect these data. For other categories--social media activity for example--consumers are just as willing to sell as they are willing to pay to protect.

In general though, it appears that there is greater willingness to pay for protecting one's information than selling it. For instance, participants selected about 1.5 categories on average when they were asked about which categories of information they'd be willing to sell. However, they picked 2.4 categories on average when asked about which types of information they'd be willing to pay to protect.

I'll also mention one other interesting finding that's not shown in these charts. It is commonly assumed that millennials are far more comfortable than older consumers with sharing all kinds of personal information online. This raises the possibility that they might feel more comfortable about selling their personal data as well. Alternatively, millennials may have greater awareness of being tracked by firms and thus may be more willing to pay to protect their data. To test these possibilities, I compared the responses of millennials (i.e., participants who were 34 years of age or younger) to older respondents. Perhaps surprisingly, we found that the two age groups hardly differed from each other when it came to their willingness to sell or willingness to pay to protect. Thus, this is not simply a matter of being comfortable or familiar with the idea of sharing information.

The future is going to bring with it an ever increasing number of ways to track and mine the rapidly growing types of data available about us. Everything about us--how much we sleep, how many calories we consume, what we buy, what we watch, where we go, where we spend--is going to be information that someone somewhere can use to sell us something. This information is already a commodity that is being bought and sold. We're just not part of the marketplace. Yet.

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The Georgetown Institute for Consumer Research receives funding from KPMG. However, research activities are determined by the interests of the Institute's researchers and trending topics.