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Is personal data the new gold?

22 May, 2020Marelize Abercrombie

Marelize Abercrombie was highly commended in the 18-19 age group in this year’s Young Financial Journalist competition for this essay on the value of data.

Hand holding phone with data on it and computer in backgroundIn the social media generation, we churn out vast amounts of personal data daily.

Every like on Instagram, Tweet, and Google Search is tracked by big tech providers and often sold or used to analyse our personal lives. The data-drenched age has brought business a new gold shaft to mine, but how much is our personal data truly worth?

What is personal data?

Personal data, as the Information Commissioner’s Office describes it, is any information relating to an identified or identifiable person. Identifiers include, but aren’t limited to, a person’s name, number, or IP address.

Our data also includes our one-click purchases and even the posts we view.

These “mundane yet intimate moments of people’s lives” have brought businesses new opportunities and new incomes – as seen through the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where the data-gathering company paid for millions of users’ Facebook data.

What is personal data worth?

However, the individual’s worth is seemingly abysmal. The average American’s data is reportedly worth between $0.20 and $0.40, and its supply is continuously growing – much unlike gold.

It is difficult to see how data could be compared to gold, especially with a gram of the metal being worth around £38. This is because data is worthless when isolated without context. Yet when cumulated, its value grows.

At 190 million users in America, Facebook could earn an estimated $76 million from selling data points.

This number grows hugely when you consider the over 2.2 billion users globally. Certain factors can increase your value worth significantly, such as a ‘recently divorced’ status, which could increase it between 10% and 20%.

Whilst gold loses its value as it becomes more obtainable, data seems to do the opposite – luckily for big tech business with the increase of ‘money-for-survey’ websites and social media users.

And with 100 billion ‘Internet of Things’ devices predicted to be connected globally by 2025, this growth in data won’t be stopping any time soon.

This strange, virtual gold may seem untouchable to the average citizen who can’t earn the same large sums of money as the businesses exploiting it.

However, people have tried, and succeeded, in selling their data themselves, and one man sold his data for $2,733 on Kickstarter.

How data exerts power

Whilst it is not yet recognised widely as the ‘new gold’, it certainly holds the power of gold. Data, when analysed, can be used to exert influence for powerful companies and even governments.

The most well known example of this is the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where 87 million data records were taken from Facebook and allegedly used to swing the 2016 US election.

A more extreme example is China’s planned social credit system, which will apparently use national databases and trustworthiness ratings to regulate citizen behaviour.

Closer to home, it has recently been rumoured that Google is using hidden web pages to feed personal data from users to advertisers, according to one of Google’s rivals. This undermines both its own policies and circumvents EU privacy regulations requiring consent.

Thus, this valuable source of income may be more sinister than suspected.

Actions as small as Facebook likes can predict a user’s sexual orientation with impressive accuracy. One must ask, how could they use this information? How safe is our data? And what can be – and is being – done to protect and regulate it?

How is the use of personal data being regulated?

Luckily, lawmakers and politicians are beginning to see the huge value of our personal data.

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) increased the fines for data breaches from a maximum of £500k to €20 million, or 4% of the company’s global turnover. This immense sanction could topple a business.

As such, businesses are beginning to handle our data more carefully, installing more appropriate and robust ‘consent to cookies’ bars for example.

In the US, the Data Value Transparency Bill has recently also been spoken about, seeking to protect privacy by forcing technology companies to disclose the value of their data to users. The Dashboard Act looks to give users the right to delete their data from the companies’ databases, another welcomed – however difficult to achieve – move.

Protecting the value of data

In conclusion, data is extremely valuable, when in the right or wrong hands.

It may be much easier to make and find than gold, but perhaps that makes it more valuable. Whilst this can be exploited, a fear of data collection shouldn’t be pushed.

Instead, a positive change and regulation should be promoted, and governments and companies need to work harder to protect these bitesize information records on our lives.

Much like we value and protect gold, we should treat data the same. 

Marelize Abercrombie
Marelize Abercrombie is highly commended 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 the University of Bristol, Marelize is considering a career in data law.



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