Our personal data is becoming a commodity, but are we ready for that?

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Digital Man

Your personal data is rapidly becoming something of value to the organisation and you need to be aware of how it is being used, why it is being used and what it is being used to achieve. Today the world is driven by an increasing array of data-producing devices and media and consumers must become far savvier when it comes to protecting themselves in this steady stream of information.

Personal data can be roughly divided into three broad categories:

  1. Data that is held about you that you are aware of and that is beneficial to you
  2. Information that is held without your permission and could be a threat
  3. Data held about you that you are not aware of

The first category consists of information such as your online bank and credit card details or your online shopping preferences and should be a contract between you and the institution that hosts that particular service and data. It is of value to you, the consumer, as it can smooth your online transactions and ensure that they are safe, secure and simple. It doesn’t have a monetary value, as such, it is more about the convenience and should never be offered for sale by any institution as that would be a gross breach of trust.

In the second category the information held without your permission could be passwords, PIN numbers and bank account details that have been gathered through fraudulent means. There is an active underground market for stolen personal data – which is no big surprise, of course – and the value of this information relies on how much validated data is sold in the ‘package’ and the value of the targeted account, your account.

The cheapest of these ‘packages’ are those with a bunch of stolen credit card numbers that have been bought in bulk but have no supporting data. The price increases if even more security data is included, such as your mother’s maiden name or your birth date. Verified active versus unverified bank account details are valuable as are accounts with top earners with a history of online transactions as they may not notice money disappearing. If you have a very active account and regularly shop online or have regular debits, it is well worth your checking your bank account regularly for unusual debits.

Like in any market, the value of your data here will depend on availability and the quality of the information. In June, Symantec reported that the global cost of a compromised record was USD 136 per record with the cost in the US alone sitting at around $194 per record. This works out to an average of $5.4milliion per company that reported a data breach.

Finally, the third category sees information that’s held about you and that you are not completely aware of and includes things like shopping preferences and socio-economic data for marketing purposes. It is this category that is sparking off substantial debate as it is where the legitimate market in personal data could potentially exist. Everything that you do commercially or online is somehow tracked and the data that is gathered through these processes can be sold as a series of facts or can be amalgamated and processed through data mining and the analysis of Big Data to show a picture of your spending, travel, online habits and more.

This outline of your personality and activities allows for the commercial world to tailor their communications with you and target you for their product or service. The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) has developed modelling software that shows how to value personal data and their most effective measure to date is to examine the net revenue per record which, for Facebook, was roughly USD 4-7 per record/user per year. That is certainly a profitable data segment and one that is not reimbursing the user.

Whether or not an organisation will sell your personal data will come down to the legality, the ethics and the value of the asset it represents. One thing is for sure, the Internet of Things is expected to reach around 20 billion devices by 2020, and South Africa is no exception to that oncoming connectivity train, and there will be so much more data about us and the devices we use to process, package and sell it.

Will the consumer evolve and become more controlling of their personal data and what papers they sign to give it away? Certainly there are signs that this is a strong possibility with a Kickstarter auction running this very day selling personal data and many more people recognising how important their data has become. South Africans are sitting on the edge of the data frontier and can now start making informed decisions about how they want their data to be used and by whom.

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