Hundreds of Web companies, such as Facebook, give away a free service in exchange for the right to collect data about the consumers who use the service. In their marketing messages and other public declarations, these companies tend to focus on the wonderful service they’re providing, and on how it makes the world a better place, while keeping quiet about the data they’re taking in return. (See “Data Snatchers! The Booming Market for Your Online Identity” for more about this topic.)
The Facebook IPO earlier this year brought this new kind of business model into sharp focus, however. For the first time, many people came to understand that their biographical, demographic, and preference data has real value, and that it should be regarded as personal property.
In the past few years, startup companies have emerged to provide consumers a way to take control of their data. Services such as Personal, Qiy, and Singly offer to store and protect the data, loaning it only to Internet companies and advertisers that the consumer trusts and approves of. Better still, the services allow users to offer their data in exchange for something, such as rebates or discounts.
This arrangement could benefit advertisers, too. Collecting accurate consumer data is difficult for marketing, advertising, and data-brokerage companies. Even after spending millions to collect tracking data on potential customers, marketers often find out later that the data was incomplete, incorrect, or outdated. And they can't know for sure who the data came from: A consumer might order something online through a particular home computer, but the data broker might receive only the PC's IP address, so anybody in that household could have placed the order.
Data-vault companies claim that if the individual consumer is included in the process of data collection, then advertisers and marketers can obtain more-accurate data.
The data-vault companies we know about so far are a young bunch. All of them are startups, and most of them have yet to make it out of beta with their service. In this article, I'll give you rough outlines of the services they intend to offer upon launch.
I’ll start with Personal, because it has the most fully baked service of any data-vault company. The service is already available to the general public, too.
Personal does a few different things: It provides a secure data vault for all your information, offers a private network for sharing your info with family and friends, and gives you a means of granting or revoking marketer and advertiser access to your data.
Shane Green, CEO of Personal, says he has the cure for the anxiety that people have over sharing their personal data online at banking sites, e-commerce sites, and social networks. Personal treats your information--including your personal details, financial information, health data, and shopping habits--as precious commodities to be locked up tight and protected in one place.
The idea is that one day Personal will serve as a marketplace where you can barter, share, or exchange your data with third-party services. That's better than today's environment, says Personal, where Web services simply take your data and treat it as their own commodity.
Right now Personal offers a secure place to bank your personal data, and it throws in a set of tools to manage your online identity. Personal also provides you with easy ways to give other Web companies access to your data on your terms, not theirs. Green says that this setup is a complete reversal from the way things work right now, as we hand over our personal data to large companies like Facebook, and they decide how to use it.
Aside from the convenience and control you get, your agreement with Personal might assign real value to your data, in a legal sense. Joshua Galper, Personal's chief policy officer and general counsel, explained to me that right now there is no basis in the law to say that an individual's personal data has real property value. Courts consider it to be “information,” not property. The devices that carry your data, such as smartphones or computers, are considered property, but not the data itself.
When you sign an “owner data agreement” with Personal, you enter a contract with the company. And if some other business were to misuse or lose the data it “borrows” from your Personal account, that business would be in violation of the agreement, and could be held liable on that basis.
Personal can run on your desktop; the company has cool Android and iPhone apps as well. Through the desktop interface or the apps, you can divide your personal data into all kinds of categories, from health information to financial details to social data.
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