Would You Let Companies Monitor You For Money?

Getting cash or discounts for your personal data could give you more control over it—but may help turn privacy into a premium feature.

Smart locks like this one often have cameras and keep records of when they’re unlocked. (Maurizio Pesce / Flickr)

In the smart home of the (not-so-distant) future, sensors will record and process occupants’ every coming and going. Opened the fridge at 3 a.m.? Noted. Washing machine hasn’t run in weeks? Your house knows. Daily habits, mealtimes, bedtime? All on file.

That’s a lot of information, and the majority of people polled in a survey released on Thursday say they’d be very worried about hackers and criminals gaining access to their (hypothetical) smart-home data.

But that doesn’t mean they’d want to keep that data to themselves. In fact, just over half of the 9,000 people surveyed worldwide said they’d share data about themselves with companies in exchange for cash.

The survey was conducted last summer by Vanson Bourne, a technology-research company, on behalf of Intel Security. In a way, its results represent the logical next step in the evolution of people’s relationship with data about themselves.

For a while now, technology users have become increasingly comfortable trading their personal data for free services. “I use Gmail for free, but I know that Google will capture some information in return,” a respondent told Pew researchers in a privacy study earlier this year. “I’m fine with that.”

If that’s the data-barter economy—give up your personal data and get convenient services in return—then we’re seeing the start of data as currency: Give up your personal data and you’ll be rewarded in actual dollars.

For many, that’s a freeing prospect. It imbues the murky data-exchange process with a new transparency, and gives consumers more agency in deciding what to offer up and what to protect.

“Privacy is really about the choice to share,” says Steve Grobman, the CTO of Intel Security. “The judgment of different individuals will vary greatly.” Indeed, smart homes will produce all kinds of data, from sensitive information about personal habits to general insights about energy use and consumer behavior. Putting dollar figures on individual data streams could help smart-home occupants decide exactly how much they value their privacy, and which elements they’re willing to give up.

But paying consumers to give up their privacy may not be particularly freeing for lower-income tech users. The practice essentially puts a premium on privacy: If you want to keep your data, and stay anonymous, you have to give up cash and deals. If this model plays out, a private smart home will be more expensive than one that reports back on its users.

Grobman says he imagines a tiered price model becoming popular. “I think that it’s reasonable to assume that some of those cost structures will be set up at higher price points, with higher degrees of anonymity and privacy protection,” he said. On the other end, lower-priced models could be subsidized “based off of access to data, as well as things like a long-term commitment.”

That’s kind of like what happened in Kansas City last year, when AT&T deployed its high-speed fiber Internet service to compete with Google Fiber. The service was priced to compete at 70 dollars a month, the same price as Google Fiber. But there was a catch: Opting out of AT&T’s “Internet Preferences” program, which recorded users’ browsing and search history, cost an extra 29 dollars a month.

Extremely high-speed fiber Internet access is, of course, already something of a luxury service, and so tacking on an extra charge won’t leave communities without an Internet connection at all. Smart-home devices, too, seem Space Age enough that they will likely be affordable only for well-off, early-adopting consumers—at first.

But smartphones were once a luxury and are now widespread, even among low-income people (some of whom depend on smartphones as their only Internet access). Gigabit Internet and smart-home technology will eventually hit the mainstream, too, and the pricing structures of privacy will affect how low-income users will experience these technologies.

Michele Gilman, a professor of law at the University of Baltimore, notes that many low-income people rent their homes. If smart-home technology becomes the norm, landlords may maintain control of the data streams that they produce—and could profit from them, too, Gilman says.

“There are many ways that poor people are used as revenue streams for businesses,” she said. “This looks like it has the potential to become another one.”

Selling data for money isn’t totally new. A service called Datacoup advertises that it’s “the only company that helps you sell your anonymous data for real, cold hard cash.” Datacoup says its service helps its customers learn more about what their personal data says about them.

The idea, while not yet widespread, is a popular one—especially among younger technology users. The Intel Security survey found that 63 percent of Millennials would sell their personal data for money. And a separate survey of 1,000 13- to 17-year-olds in the U.K. released earlier this week found that 43 percent of respondents would rather accept cash for their personal information than work a job to earn money.

Grobman says he’d probably only be comfortable selling general data about power usage in his home in exchange for discounts from his utility company. “My expertise may make me a better judge of what my data is actually worth,” he said. But if the price is right, “there’s definitely more data that I would be willing to release [and] accept that additional risk or loss of privacy.”

Having more choice in the kinds of personal data we share is a step in the right direction. For many people, the prospect of benefiting directly from sharing it is very attractive, and participating in a data market could help them increase their control over their own information. But for low-income individuals who are already starved of digital privacy, it could shunt privacy even further out of reach.