Personal data has value. Facebook and Google harvest billions from it through advertising. Talented hackers make a handsome living from stealing and selling it. The profits of credit score companies ride on the back of it.
And, unless you are very young or very unusual, you have terabytes of it on your devices or floating around in the cloud.
But how much your data actually worth? To get some idea, let’s examine the value of some of the personal data for the average US Joe or Jane.
Your Data Value as an Advertising Target
Consider the price advertisers pay to try to catch your eye. Facebook, Google, and other digital ad brokers use your data for targeting. They capture your behavior and your consumer profile (your preferences, lifestyle, stage of life, and various other attributes).
Facebook prospers from the fact that it knows a great deal about its users — its average US user spends about 40 minutes a day on the site, enhancing that knowledge. Facebook regularly runs batteries of statistical algorithms to match users with the products advertisers wish to promote.
In 2017, the average cost per click for an online Facebook ad was $1.72 — a premium price that stems from the mountainous variety of data it can dissect and evaluate.
Google, the other giant of the digital domain, cannot match Facebook in this area, but more than compensates for it with Google Adwords, which, with an 80% share of the US market, dominates search advertising.
According to Wordstream, in 2017, the average cost per Google AdWords click was $2.32. Naturally, some clicks cost much more than that. The price is fixed by auction, so it varies with demand. The price for adwords for legal services, for example, can rise above $50 per click. Nice work if you can get it.
If we take the total US revenues from digital advertising in 2017, about $83 billion, and divide it by the population of US Internet users (roughly 287 million) you get the digital ad revenue per average Joe or Jane.
It works out to be $289.19 per annum.
This is an average, so if you do many product searches or frequently click on website ads, your total will be higher — especially if you often seek legal services.
Your Data Value to Hackers
Another way to look at the value of personal data is from the thief’s perspective. Data thieves usually steal personal data so they can sell it on the Dark Web to other thieves. If it wasn’t worth much they wouldn’t bother.
The bare details of a credit card (name, card number, expiry date) are not worth much. But if you add in the owner’s address and email, then it’s worth somewhere between $20-$25.
That has a similar market value to a driver’s license. So one debit card, two credit cards, and a driver’s license, plus your email and physical address command a price of $100 (more details here).
Passwords can be valuable. Your Netflix password (if you have one) is worth about $3.00. Your Spotify password comes in at about $2.80. A password that walks you into a bank account with a balance in the region of $2,000 commands a price of $100. For a balance of $15,000 or more, think in terms of $1,000.
A complete medical record can fetch the same $1,000 price, although, like the bank account, the value depends on what it contains. Such details can be sold to insurance companies or even used for blackmail, but the less it contains, the less value it will command.
It’s difficult to estimate an average value for passwords and personal credentials. But if you include a collection of passwords for a bank account, a savings account, add in a few credit or debit cards, a driving license, and a passport and assume just an average medical record, we are probably looking at $300, minimum.
Your Data Value as a Credit Score
In 2016, Equifax made a healthy gross profit on revenues of just over $3.1 billion — the year before it managed to compromise the personal financial data of 147 million Americans.
Credit scoring is a profitable business, as both Experian (annual revenues of $4.55 bn) and TransUnion (annual revenues of $1.7 bn) can attest.
Roughly a quarter of those global revenues flow from the tens of thousands of companies that are interested in the creditworthiness of about 235 million Americans. The data that Equifax, Experian and TransUnion present to those companies is your personal financial data, gathered, aggregated, and analyzed without so much as a “by you leave”.
Do the math and you’ll discover that they make about $10 per annum from the average Joe or Jane.
Let’s Examine the Personal Data Inventory
What is the inventory of your personal data?
It is probably more extensive than you think. It consists of basic contact details (name, address, telephone, email) and official credentials that prove who you are, such as a birth certificate, driver’s license, passport, social security number, and so on.
To this, we can add personal interests, hobbies, and preferences; data that will interest advertisers and retailers. There’s financial information; bank accounts, debit and credit cards, investments and insurances, and nowadays, crypto wallets.
There is also personal history, such as previous addresses, phone numbers, educational records, transcripts, employment records, certifications, and criminal records.
And let’s not forget your personal history of buying and selling things.
There is your health data: current records, medical events, doctors’ reports, lab results, current pharmaceuticals taken (if any).
We can also include any memberships of associations or groups of any kind, such as sports clubs, retail warehouses, air miles programs, political affiliations, and so on.
We also need to include all the digital permissions you manage: login details that provide access to websites, software applications, or digital services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and so on.
To this, we can add ownership data, deeds, titles, provenance, appraisals, and other documents that relate to physical possessions such as a house, car, antiques, etc.
Then there are your actual digital possessions: emails sent and received, text files, videos, music, sound recordings, and any other data files.
Last, but by no means least, are your personal digital tracks — the full history of your digital activities.
Federico Zannier’s Experiment
To get a handle on the value of your digital tracks, consider an interesting experiment conducted by Federico Zannier, an alumnus of New York University and an experienced IT consultant.
Zannier decided to sell his personal digital tracks for $2 per day over one month using Kickstarter.
The data included was: the text of every web page he visited, regular screenshots of his PC activity with timestamps, a folder of webcam photos taken every 30 seconds, a log of all PC application activity (open and close times), browser activity including searches, personal geolocation, and PC mouse movements.
Federico guessed he’d earn about $500 from his one-month data sale, but exceeded that target more than fivefold. He raked in $2,733!
As with all other categories of data we have already discussed, different people would definitely command different prices for their digital tracks. The digital tracks of an A list celebrity would surely command a higher price than Federico’s and those of the average Joe or Jane, far less.
Nevertheless, they are probably worth about $1,000, per annum.
To determine an accurate average value for US personal data would demand much more research than we have done here.
Nevertheless, given the data we have discussed and the extensive nature of an individual’s data resource, it is likely that, on average, the personal data of a US resident is worth somewhere in the region of $2,000 — $3,000 per year.
The question is: How to monetize it?