Have you ever seen an ad on the internet and realised that it’s uncannily specific to your interests, almost as if someone knew what you liked and disliked, or where you lived and how old you were? I can’t be the only one who’s scrolled through Instagram and seen an ad for student accommodation in Lancaster and found it a bit creepy. The explanation is quite simple: someone does know. Okay, it’s not quite Halloween yet, maybe not someone, but something, a business that bought your data along with the data of countless others in order to more accurately aim their advertisements. But how did they get this information?
From your YouTube watch history to your web searches to your location, all of it is stored, packaged, and sold. Companies are able to create a profile on you, from your age and gender to where you live to your interests and hobbies, even down to personal information about your health or marital status, all from bits of data they pick up as you use the internet. You can see for yourself how much information Google collects on you by going to the ‘ad settings’ or ‘my activity’ sections of your Google account.
So how much is this all worth? According to a 2013 Financial Times report, for general information such as age, gender, or location, advertisers are willing to pay around $0.50 per 1000 people. While this doesn’t sound like much, this is for the most basic of information. For more intimate information such as knowing that a consumer is an expectant mother in her second trimester the price goes up to $0.11 per person. If this still doesn’t sound like much, bear in mind that a single company, Acxiom, has data on 500 million consumers worldwide, and that this is just one of 4000 companies in this market. These companies are known as data brokers, and specialise in collecting, analysing, and distributing the information of hundreds of millions of consumers worldwide, comprising an industry that’s worth $200 billion. It is this industry which facilitated the rise of the paid survey sites which attract impoverished students in droves. All of the data you give them about yourself is compiled and sold off.
This may seem innocuous, after all nothing sinister is being done with your data, and if the ads you see are tailored to you, then you benefit too, right? Well, it may not be as harmless as it seems. A recent security breach at consumer credit reporting agency Equifax led to the data of 143 million Americans and 400,000 UK residents being stolen. Information such as names, addresses, social security numbers, and even credit card information were taken, in an event which has led many to question the ethics of letting private business hold and distribute personal data for profit. In any case, I think it’s fair to say that we rarely consent to this data being collected, though the $200 billion question remains: do we own our data?