Putting a price on our data won't make the platforms stop abusing our privacy

There are several proposals at the state and federal level to force the Big Tech platforms to disclose how much our data is worth to them -- with the hopes that this will curb their abuses of our privacy and even offer an income-stream that could benefit low-income users.

But as my EFF colleague Hayley Tsukayama writes, "Our information should not be thought of as our property this way, to be bought and sold like a widget. Privacy is a fundamental human right. It has no price tag. No person should be coerced or encouraged to barter it away. And it is definitely not a good deal for people to receive a handful of dollars in exchange for allowing companies’ invasive data collection to remain unchecked."

That's because the sums that Big Tech sells your data for are often very small relative to the costs those data-sales exact from you, from realtime location data being sold for less than $0.01/user to "lists of 1,000 people with different conditions such as anorexia, depression and erectile dysfunction for $79 per list. Such embarrassing information in the wrong hands could cost someone their job or their reputation."

What's more, Big Tech can use seemingly innocuous data as a proxy for more potentially sensitive information, like where you went to high school, but "mortgage lenders, using proxy variables such as their high school, charge African American and Latinx homebuyers higher interest rates as compared with whites in similar financial situation" -- you might give that information away to Big Tech, but the total costs are huge: "the way companies use this information overcharges minority homeowners up to $500 million per year."

Back in 2008, I wrote that "property" is the wrong way to think about information. Property rights work best when there are clear titles and good information, but personal information has neither. Your trip with your co-workers to a union meeting might be very valuable and sensitive information to all of you, but which one of you "owns" the fact that the meeting took place? Do you all own it together and thus all need to agree before it can be sold? Or can any one of you sell this, and thus lower the "value" of this "asset" for all of you. How about how the front of your house looks? Some people were very angry that Google "took" the images of streets without paying for them or asking permission, but are we prepared to allow homeowners to decide who can photograph their street? What about if the person taking the photo is a community activist trying to agitate for higher-density zoning and hoping to defeat the rich NIMBYs who insist on single-family dwellings?

And then there's things like phone numbers: giving you ownership over a ten-digit integer is a terrible idea (for one thing, it makes you part proprietor of pi and any other irrational number!).

None of this is to say that personal information isn't valuable -- just that the value is really poorly captured and allocated using property and markets. There are lots of things in our world that this is true of: notably, human beings are very valuable, but we don't express that value by selling human beings (or even their organs) on the market.

The reason Big Tech gets to nonconsensually harvest and abuse our data is because they have a power imbalance. Turning that privacy into a vendable commodity without correcting that imbalance just invites them to nonconsenually appropriate the data ("by using this service, you agree that your data is worth $100 a year; you also agree that the service is worth $100/year. Therefore you agree that we own your data without limitation").

Putting a price-tag on your data to solve privacy abuses is like giving a bullied kid extra lunch-money so that he won't go hungry. Until you do something about the bullies, you can shower the kid in lunch money and all it will do is enrich the bullies.

Associating the sale of personal information with income is also particularly dangerous for low-income families. Proponents of the Oregon pay-for-privacy bill suggested that that this would provide a new income stream for lower-income people. The truth is that pay-for-privacy creates a world where privacy is a luxury afforded only to those who can afford to protect their fundamental rights. EFF strongly opposes “pay-for-privacy” schemes, which discourage all people from exercising their right to privacy and creates classes of privacy “haves” and “have-nots.” Corporations should not be allowed to require a consumer to pay a premium, or waive a discount, in order to stop the corporation from vacuuming up and profiting from, the consumer’s personal information.

Some advocates of assigning data a monetary value also push the idea that privacy is dead—and that a “dividend” is the only way for consumers to claw back any benefit from a system designed to exploit them. In truth, we are seeing more momentum behind strong privacy legislation nationally and internationally than we have in years. We at EFF are nowhere near ready to give up on stronger privacy legislation. Nor should our country’s lawmakers.

Knowing the “Value” of Our Data Won’t Fix Our Privacy Problems [Hayley Tsukayama/EFF Deeplinks]