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Actually, I prefer cash for my personal data

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  February 12, 2014 12:35 PM

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Much of the digital economy is based on a simple trade: We fork over information about our private lives, and companies give us free services like search or a social network. It's a so-so deal, and when you consider Mark Zuckerberg's billions, it's hard not to feel like Silicon Valley is getting the better end of things.

But now, a new startup promises to level the playing field! Kind of. An article today in the MIT Technology Review reports on Datacoup, which is offering individuals $8 a month for a combination of their social media data and a feed of transactions from their debit and credit cards. Datacoup strips that information of identifying characteristics, bundles it with other people's information, and sells it to companies who'll mine it for marketing insights. The MIT article mentions that in the future, Datacoup may let you monetize even more of your personal life, by paying for a closer look at your web browsing habits, and for data from personal tracking devices like Fitbit.

The thought of selling access to your private life is complicated. On the one hand, we've already given away a lot of our privacy, so we might as well get paid for it. On the other hand, a straight-up cash-for-data swap feels vulgar, and somehow related to more obvious no-no's like prostitution and organ trafficking. At the very least, Datacoup's offer highlights an unresolved question: We haven't yet decided the moral implications of privacy.

For more on the ethics of oversharing, take a look at this Brainiac post from last July.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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