At least these "insights" are happening in a restricted online space, you might think. After all, I can certainly choose not to spend my time looking at ads on Facebook. But you'd be mistaken. Many stores use infrared cameras to determine what products you look at and for how long before you buy. Cell service providers have started reselling information about what data you access on your phone at which physical location. For example, Telefonica, one of Europe's largest cellphone providers, recently released a product called Smart Steps that would tell retailers who entered their stores and when, allowing them to tailor products, promotions, and staffing.
On the face of it, a lot of this can, as with online advertising, be chalked up to companies simply wanting to be better able to give us what we want. After all, most people don't complain about getting useful search results from Google or helpful product suggestions from Amazon. But it may not be in our best interest to be sold as much as we can buy at the highest price we can afford.
That leaves us with limited options. We've already decided that privacy is not a right—and we affirm that every day that we use Facebook and Google and all the other services for which we've clicked “agree.” We can opt out entirely, which is increasingly only possible if we want to wrap our heads in tin foil and live in a cave. Or we can throw up our hands and take what we're given, which is the most popular choice.
But a better option might be to simply raise our prices. We can limit how our personal information is gathered and utilized, and in doing so we can demand that it be purchased at higher rates than just access to Instagram. It may not mean cold hard cash (at least not at first), but we can certainly expect more premium services, more discreet advertising, or even just better control over who gets our data and for what purposes.
After all, once we start controlling what we share with whom, we can decide that certain kinds of information are worth more to which retailers. Want to know what sort of food I regularly order? I might decide to share that with FreshDirect (a grocery delivery service) and Seamless (a restaurant delivery service), but not with Good Eggs or GrubHub (their competitors). Once those services recognize that I've got a commodity they want—namely data that allows them to upsell, cross-market, and target-promote—and that I'm willing to withhold that information from one provider in favor of another, it changes the game substantially. In exchange for my precious data, companies might offer me meaningful dollar-value promotions, discounts, and special offers.
And if companies won’t start offering genuine value for your data, then you should consider holding it back. Most of the tracking systems that exist online can still be circumvented or blocked: There are virtual private networks (VPNs) to prevent our location from being tracked, browser plug-ins to keep our Web page views private, encryption tools to keep our documents and emails from being scanned, and anonymizing software to allow us to participate in social networks without our real-world identities being connected to our online conversations. As an added bonus, many of these technologies (such as TOR for anonymizing our Internet traffic or PGP for encrypting our email) can also protect our data from government surveillance, both national and international.
Attending to these options is a hassle. They're not designed to give you a convenient, seamless user experience. But as the value of our personal information begins to rise, it puts us in a position to name a price for it. By making such choices we're insisting that our personal information be valued at what we think is a more accurate market price than "almost nothing."
From Reputation Economics by Josh Klein. Copyright © 2013 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd.