Business

Should we be giving away our personal data for free?

a businesswoman holding a smartphone Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Should you be giving away your personal data free to companies or charging them for it?

We've all done it. Those quizzes that appear on social media sites promising to reveal what your choice of holiday destination says about you or what animal you were in a former life.

But how many of us actually stop to think about the vast quantity of personal data we're surrendering as we keep on clicking, and how much it might actually be worth?

Is it time we started saying: If you want to know about me and my shopping, travelling and living habits, it'll cost you, because I'm worth it?

It's notoriously difficult to put a value on the personal data economy in the UK.

People's information is used by lots of different industries. Advertising, insurance and loyalty schemes all hold vast swathes of our personal data.

Matt Stroud, head of personal data and safety at the government backed initiative, Digital Catapult, believes that whilst it's an area currently difficult to quantify financially, the whole sector is set to explode over the next few years.

"If you take just one sector of the personal data economy, such as market research, we can start to see what sort of value we're talking about "

So what sort of money are we talking about?

The UK's Market Research Society estimates this information is worth about £3.5-4bn, commercially.

It's not hard then to see just how much of a goldmine of personal information we could all be sitting on - personal data being any bit of information relating to an individual and that can be tied to that person.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Online quizzes are one way for firms to gather valuable data about potential customers

"If it feels like personal data then it probably is," says Peter Gooch, head of data privacy at accountancy firm Deloitte.

"Anything that can identify an individual is classed as personal data and is covered by the Data Protection Act.

"Names and addresses and mobile numbers are all classed as personal data - but lifestyle choices, shopping habits and other areas of personal interest are all valuable pieces of information to someone."

'Next internet revolution'

The rise of the "Internet of things" and increased ownership in mobiles will lead to a tsunami of information being accessible to marketing companies, said a report last year from Digital Catapult.

And author Matt Stroud warns that consumers need to wise up to understanding just how valuable their data really is.

He believes the rise in awareness of the personal digital economy is set to transform business processes and how current platforms work.

"The rise in personal data is the next internet revolution."

One business which believes it can transform the personal data economy is People.IO.

Its chief executive and co-founder, Nicholas Oliver, believes personal data should be considered an asset, and that it is time for people to take control of their own personal data.

"At the minute people are giving up this valuable asset class far too easily.

"When we shop online or sign up for things on the internet we're opening the gates to marketing companies.

"Instead of giving it up for free we need to understand its value.

"Our model allows individuals to connect with brands and to gain rewards in return for their data, but at no time do they relinquish ownership of their information.

"If they decide to leave then their data is deleted."

Image copyright Michelle Beatty
Image caption People need to become more aware of how to get paid for their personal data, says Nicholas Oliver

Another company attempting to put a financial value on personal data is LatestFreeStuff.co.uk.

In a recent appearance on BBC's Two Dragon's Den - where entrepreneurs pitch for funding from investors or dragons in exchange for a share of the business - three out of the five "dragons" were clambering to invest.

The site allows consumers to get free products and samples from well known brands in return for their personal information. The website gets a commission for every transaction agreed.

Ad blockers

Chief executive Deepak Taylor, isn't sure if people who sign up for his website are totally clear about what they're giving up.

"In my opinion, consumers might never know the true value of their personal information.

"We have lots of big brand names giving away lots of appealing products. But the terms and conditions of each offer is controlled exclusively by the brands.

"Some offers can be really hard to understand and interpret especially when consumers are using small screens like mobile phones. "

Mr Taylor says his firm does its best to inform customers about managing their personal data and the implications of ticking certain boxes.

"But sometimes it's a race against time to apply for the best offers because people just don't want to miss out on the latest offers," he says.

"They're more than willing to hand over all of their personal information just to make sure they get their hands on the freebie."

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Awareness of ad blocking technology among online consumers is rising

But not all customers are prepared to do this.

The rise in advertising blocking technology over the past 12 months has highlighted the increased awareness by consumers of how their personal data is being harvested.

"The fact that there's been an explosion in the number of people using ad blockers shows just how savvy some consumers are becoming," says People.IO's boss Nicholas Oliver.

"What's the point in giving your information away forever when you can franchise it out and get something back in return?

"Big brands understand the power of personal data. The fact they can't get as much information as they once did means that the balance of power is shifting between marketing companies and consumers, which can only be a good thing."

Sharing less

Mr Oliver believes that people are going to be happy to allow their data to be used for marketing, but it has to be on their terms.

It's a belief echoed by a recent survey from software provider Informatica, which found that 73% of consumers were wary about how their personal information and data was being used.

In fact, more than half (56%) of those who expressed concern about the use of personal data they have shared online with brands and organisations are reclaiming access to it - and say they intend to share less information in future.

So the next time you see a fun "quiz" on your smartphone suggesting a few clicks will reveal what sort of an animal you might be - it's worth bearing in mind just how valuable the information you're providing could be worth.