In the winning essay of the 18-19 age group in our Young Financial Journalist competition, Lindell Brown compares the demand for personal data with the California Gold Rush of 1848.
In 1848, a man named James W Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill, California. As news of this precious material broke out, over 300,000 prospectors flocked to the US state, hoping to get a glimpse of the beautiful metal.
The economy was reinvigorated, reignited, reborn. A posse of hopefuls had come mining for the most valuable asset on Earth. 150 years later, they’re still mining for the biggest prize – except this time, it’s personal data.
Demand for data
Data has been the hot topic of the 21st century for a while now. With the prolific rise of social media alongside the lust for customary marketing, it’s no wonder that the most powerful corporations on the planet want as much of it as they can get.
It’s not all down to the businesses though. It’s mainly down to us, the public. Perhaps it’s the slightly ironic self-entitlement that we’ve given ourselves in society nowadays.
Or maybe it’s just because us as millennials have no valuable assets anymore because we don’t know how to save responsibly or spend reasonably, so we rely on our personal data to act as our placeholder.
Regardless, personal data is what we consider to be a privatised and non-commercial item. And in 2020 we are doing as good of a job as ever to completely spill it all over the front pages of the internet.
Supply and demand
The reason gold was so desperately acquired in the 1800s was because of its scarcity. Nobody had it, and everybody wanted it. Supply and demand will demonstrate to you that the lower the amount of something, the more everyone miraculously wants of it.
I highly doubt that anybody wanted KFC in the winter of 2018, but as soon as they ran out of chicken, everybody suddenly desired it! This is the general characteristic of all goods.
In the 21st century, the same is happening to data, which is why its characteristics are exactly that of gold’s in 1848.
We regard our personal data – such as our date of birth, birth town, name and even our height – to be obsolete pieces of information to anybody but ourselves. And our friends. And our family. And the 2,000 contacts that you have on Facebook.
See, we are so bad at keeping our information private that it makes it valuable. It is completely and utterly incomprehensible and ironic how us, the leaders of the next generation, cannot keep anything private.
This is why we find our personal data so valuable. We believe that only the people we ‘know’ should have our information, and all of the big, dirty corporations up at the top should stay clear of us entirely. This method of thinking actually has the complete opposite effect.
The culture around personal data
This is not a honed attack on teenagers, either. I, myself, am 18 and I’m just as bad as the rest of the public. It wouldn’t take more than five minutes to find my origin, name, phone number and my favourite food. The culture around personal data has become so widespread and common that we don’t really regard it as ‘common knowledge’, but more of a law.
Now, in order to conclude my previous point (and also to avoid myself appearing like a massive hypocrite), it’s important that I explain why the aforementioned method of thinking doesn’t work.
The reason for this is simple. The big businesses already have all of your information, whilst your ‘friends’ actually don’t care. That’s the problem. Let me make this point applicable.
I have around 200 friends on Facebook and 100 followers on Instagram. No more than about 5% of those people wished me a happy birthday. Now, you could argue that I have very uncaring friends, but that’s a matter for another time.
On your 18th birthday, expect to be inundated with emails from banks, clothing websites, restaurants – you name it, they will give you an amazing deal. None of these big businesses forget your birthday. Why? Because they have your personal data.
They want nothing more than to make a profit out of your most ‘valuable asset’, which is exactly the same as what traders used to, and still do with gold. They will take your asset, pass it on between lots of other parties, and share it all around for everyone to benefit from.
This is what makes personal data so much like gold. Both of them are desired because they make businesses a profit. Not too silly, eh?
So, to conclude, nobody wants your personal data but the corporations. Your Facebook profile is essentially a gold mine of profit, waiting to be extracted. California is still mining for gold – although this time, it’s the ‘new gold’– personal data!
Lindell Brown is the winner in the 18-19 age group of our 2019/20 Young Financial Journalist competition, which we run in partnership with the Financial Times. A student at East Norfolk Sixth Form College, Lindell has always been interested in journalism and trades in his spare time.
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