Big Data

Dutch Student Sells His Online Info to Beat Data Marketers

Why give away your personal data for free, if others are going to sell it off for you?
Mr. Buckles, from a picture scraped from Linkedin, irony intact.

Mr. Buckles, from a picture scraped from Linkedin, irony intact.

Dutch college student Shawn Buckles was sick of companies like Facebook and Google using his data to fuel their businesses. So he decided to take matters into his own hands and sell it himself by auctioning off all of his online data.

So what exactly was up for sale? Location tracking records, social media profiles, traveling records, his calendar, email and chat, browsing history and shopping data. Over 40 potential buyers showed up, from hacker groups to sociologists.

“Everyday, I collect a vast amount of personal data,” Mr. Buckles writes on the site he built for the auction. “The computers I’m surrounded with have memory: they monitor my every move.”

Mr. Buckles was inspired to sell his data after seeing an interview with eclectic techno-futurist and author Jaron Lanier.

“He stated that we should get paid for the value we add to the collective brain we call the Internet,” Mr. Buckles told Betabeat. “I decided to take a leap of faith.”

The auction took place over a period of a few weeks, and the winner, at 350 euros ($482.86), was tech media company The Next Web. Mr. Buckles says he’s been in contact with The Next Web, and that they plan on using his data at their next conference as part of an exhibition on privacy.

Mr. Buckles has pretty severe politics regarding data collection and sale. He calls his digital footprint a “datasoul” and says that selling it is a form of prostitution. But it’s hard to dismiss Mr. Buckles as a fringe radical when recent questions about the sale of personal data have been generating so much public outrage.

Sure, data brokers had their day of getting dragged through the mud — but third parties who collect and bundle up data for marketers are only a fraction of the Big Data market. Now, online services we generally consider “free” are getting wise to the market potential of the data we generate by using them.


Selling Your Vital Signs

Mr. Buckles didn’t have a live feed of his health data like his blood pressure and hydration for sale, but that future isn’t far off. Read more here.


Twitter, for example, acquired Gnip last week in order to start making money directly from repackaging and selling tweets, and Bitly recently partnered with SEO giant Moz in order to finally start selling behavioral data it’s been collecting for years. And companies like Google have been leveraging data to sell ad spots for years.

For Mr. Buckles, seizing control over personal data and having more transparency are steps in the right direction, but still not “radical” enough. He sees the crisis as existential, and says that if we don’t understand privacy as the right to shape our own identity, we’ve given up our freedom to a third party.

“The fundamental problem lies in our perception of value,” Mr. Buckles said. “Instead of giving ourselves credit for the value we add to the Internet, we think of the Internet as some sort of a super-brain that creates value all by itself.”

Then again, that’s potential the trade-off we may have to cope with to use “free” social media and cloud services — these businesses are expensive to run, and user data may be the only viable source of revenue they can generate to sustain their otherwise free services.

And if user metrics are any indication, all of the outrage over Big Data hasn’t even put a modest dent in these businesses. Is it possible that people will wake up and demand privacy and control? Well, Mr. Buckles seems to be holding on to hope.

Until then, our browsing data, emails, tweets, reblogs, likes, shares, check-ins and click-throughs are up for sale. And at the rates we’re beginning to generate data about personal health and utilities, that’s only the start.

Follow Jack Smith IV on Twitter or via RSS. jsmith@observer.com