New York Student Selling His Private Data on Kickstarter

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
May 13 2013 5:35 PM

New York Student Selling His Private Data on Kickstarter

Federico Zannier is selling his personal data on Kickstarter to make a point about privacy
Federico Zannier is selling his personal data on Kickstarter to make a point about privacy

Photo courtesy Federico Zannier

In a world of privacy-invading smartphone apps and government-grade spyware, keeping personal data personal online can seem like a difficult task. But could you make money by choosing to give away logs of your most intimate data?

Federico Zannier is trying to find out. Emails, chat logs, location data, browser history, screenshots—you name it, the New York-based software developer is selling it all. With a Kickstarter campaign launched earlier this month, Zannier, a 28-year-old Italian-born master’s student at NYU, is offering to hand over a day’s digital footprint for a measly $2. He says he “violated his own privacy” starting back in February for about 50 days straight, recording screenshots and webcam snaps of himself every 30 seconds and tracking his every footstep using GPS technology. He logged the address of each Web page he visited—storing some 3 million lines of text—and accumulated a massive trove of 21,124 webcam photos and 19,920 screen shots.

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Zannier’s aim, somewhat paradoxically, is to take ownership of his own data by selling it. He points out that we often hand over our private data unwittingly, given that few people take the time to read the terms and conditions of apps and online services. Companies rake in millions of dollars selling our information to marketing firms while we receive little in return. But Zannier’s Kickstarter is not just out to make a statement about online privacy—he plans to use the funds to create a browser extension and a smartphone app that he says will help others sell their own data. “If more people do the same, I'm thinking marketers could just pay us directly for our data,” he writes on his Kickstarter page. “It might sound crazy, but so is giving all our data away for free.”

Since launching last week, Zannier’s project, which is accompanied by an excellent website, has already far exceeded its modest funding goal of $500. He has currently raised more than $1,000, with 103 backers. For $2 you can get a day’s worth of his data, or for $200 you can obtain the lot—the full 7GB trove spanning nearly two months.

What isn’t directly addressed by Zannier’s interesting initiative is its potential effect on the privacy of others. What he is proposing to do is essentially encourage people to install spyware on their own computer so that they can log their online behavior and then sell this information on to a third party. But this could have many hazards. Selling email and chat logs, for instance, could implicate friends, colleagues, and family—who may not consent to having their private correspondence sold off to the highest bidder. Each user would have to carefully vet the data logs before selling them to ensure no confidential communications, financial records, passwords, or photographs were exposed.

Zannier told me by email that he has kept “other people's privacy out of the data.” As for his own personal data, however, could there be a few embarrassing nuggets in the trove? He hints that he might have been careful to avoid doing anything too risqué online while undertaking the project. “I've tried not to censor myself, but I am being careful to remove passwords and other sensitive information,” he says. “Knowing you're being tracked does change the way you browse the Internet, of course.”

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Ryan Gallagher is a journalist who reports on surveillance, security, and civil liberties.

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