What is Your Digital Information Worth To Online Companies?

Rijeka, Croatia - April 11th 2011: Part of www.facebook.com site in Firefox 4 browser on LCD screen. Facebook is a social network service and website launched in February 2004 that is operated and privately owned by Facebook, Inc. As of April 2011, Facebook has more than 600 million active users.

I feel a bit dirty. A little uneasy. In fact I feel violated. I’m not quite sure how to handle it, or how I feel about it all.

The worst part about it is there’s really not much I can do about any of it.

Let me explain by telling you what happened to me yesterday…

I bought a new laptop for my wife Hayley last week. It was a Lenovo Yoga 700. One of those ‘convertible’ laptop/tablets. A pretty nifty laptop, good specs, a good price. The only downside is it came with Windows 10.

The thing was crashing all the time. Hayley had been the only one using it, and she hated it. The ‘blue screen of death’ would appear on a daily basis. It would freeze or do strange things without any seeming input. It was pure rubbish.

She was furious. I was too. This was a new computer. Yet even after installing updates, drivers, and restarting the thing, it was a sub-par product. Yesterday we sent it back.

Luckily I bought it through Amazon. I went into my Amazon account and chose to get a refund. I printed off the return label and stuck it on the box with the contents inside. Note: I factory reset the machine first, destroying any files that were on there.

I then dropped it off at a Collect+, shop and the refund was underway. Within two hours Amazon had confirmed my return and processed my refund. Now that’s what you call customer service!

I then decided the best course of action was to get Hayley a MacBook. She’s used mine on several occasions and been fine with it. MacOS is user friendly, she loves it so that’s what we went with. I jumped online and ordered her a MacBook Air through Debenhams Plus (the online store of the UK retail giant, Debenhams).

This, however, isn’t a story about laptops. It was what happens next that blew me away.

You cannot proceed without giving up your privacy

I processed my order and it was confirmed. I made the payment on my credit card. As far as I was concerned no problems, all done. Usually if there’s any kind of concerning activity on my credit card, American Express will call me and find out.

But minutes after placing the order for the MacBook I got a call from Debenhams Plus.

The customer service person wanted me to answer some security questions. My order wouldn’t compete without it. I’m pretty switched on to internet and phone scams, hence my immediate reaction was that this was a scam.

The operator on the end of the line asked:

Hello is this Mr…Samuel Volkering?

Yes it is,

Hello Mr. Volkering this is [name omitted] from Debenhams Plus, I’m calling to just ask you a few security questions in order to process and complete your order.

Um, OK.

I was reticent to give any information away. I let her continue. She asked what for the registered names at the address on the electoral roll.

I gave her my name. Apparently I’m (still) not registered at this address. But someone else is. I’m certain it’s the former tenant. We (still) get mail for her from the electorate, even though we regularly send it back.

I failed the ‘electoral roll security question’. Then she asked if I had a landline at the address. I said no, we don’t. Who uses a landline anymore?

She then asked if I had a work number. I said no. Again, I don’t have one. It’s all through my mobile. That’s how the modern world works.

Then she asked me if I had a Facebook profile or LinkedIn profile. And that’s when I lost my bundle…

When placing an order for a computer I don’t mind giving the company my address and phone number. At least that way they know where to send it and who to call for updates.

But I was not happy my social networks were now used for ‘security’.

Why do you need my Facebook or LinkedIn information?’

For security sir, to make sure you’re the person who placed the order for the MacBook.

But I used my credit card, if there’s a fraud problem they’ll contact me. And because it’s me, they’re not going to have a problem. So again, why do you need my Facebook information or LinkedIn information?

We can’t process the order without completing the security check.

If I don’t give you some of this information will I get my order?

No sir, I have to complete the security check to complete the order.

At this point I had one of two choices. Pay £100 more for the MacBook elsewhere, or give her the info. I felt cornered and vulnerable.

Then again, my Facebook profile is completely locked. She wouldn’t be able to get anything there anyway. I would also fail that test, too.

To get the computer tomorrow as I thought I’d already achieved, I would have to give my LinkedIn info. Luckily it only says where I work, my job title and my university. It’s all publicly available anyway — so I gave her that.

As I gave her my LinkedIn profile, I could hear her on her keyboard checking out my info on LinkedIn. It felt strange. I mean I’ve got a fair bit of info out on the publicly accessible web. But this just was awkward. It felt like a violation of my privacy.

My data is worth £100

And it made me think, what is our privacy worth? How much value do you place on your personal data? Is your Facebook profile locked to external people? LinkedIn? Any social networks secure?

What price did I put on the data I had to give her? £100 pounds.

Would I have done it for less? Yes, probably. Where would I draw the line, though? I guess it all depends on the type of information I would be willing to give up.

This is the world we live in today. Where digital information about us floats around everywhere. People usually give it away for free. Companies know this, and have built successful businesses on ‘data skimming’. This collects all your information online to profile you. They then sell this to advertising companies. Or use it for their own gain.

Our information is worth something. We might think it’s not, but it is.

It’s worth a lot really, but we (even I) need to value it more. Somehow we need to stop giving corporations our information for free. They make monetary gain from it, but it’s not theirs to use. It’s ours. When was the last time you were given a reward for logging in somewhere with Facebook? Never? Of course never.

Imagine a business that gives you a discount for every bit of information you give them. I’d use that business. Millions would. Eventually, other businesses would have to follow.

Monetary reward for data is what I call a business opportunity. Whoever can find a way to act on it first and reward us for our personal data might become an incredibly wealthy operation.

Until then we must all try to do our best to stop giving information away for free.


Sam Volkering,

For The Daily Reckoning

Ed Note: This article was originally published in Money Morning.

Sam Volkering
Sam is Editor for Money Morning and it's small-cap and technology analyst. He spends his time hunting down the most exciting stocks on the planets, whether they’re potential-packed volatile small-caps or tech firms transforming our future through cutting-edge technologies. You can find more of Sam’s work over at Australian Small-Cap Investigator, where he shares the best small-cap stocks he finds on the ASX, or at Revolutionary Tech Investor where he reveals the latest breakthrough tech investment he’s discovered.

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