back to article What is the REAL value of your precious, precious data?

Multitudes are getting very excited about what all of this data flowing around the system is worth. If we can know lots and lots about lots and lots of things then obviously that's really valuable, yes? And to some extent this is even true. We're not just in a bubble here – the more we can do with data these days, the more …

  1. thames

    Let's see, what has the US government been up to since they terrified their citizens into acquiescing the establishment of a police state to "protect them from terrorists"? Kidnapping people and imprisoning them in secret prisons. Torture of innocent people. Holding people for many years without trial. Need I go on?

    The American security services buy data from commercial vendors. So tell me then, why would I want information about me to be sold to a country like that? Maybe, perhaps even likely, nothing would happen. But why take the risk? I mean, look at all the security theatre we go through to avoid the miniscule individual risk of terrorism. Why should we take the threat posed by the US Homeland Security any less seriously than we do terrorists?

    If the American businesses who are complaining about this don't like it, then perhaps they ought to be spending their lobbying efforts (and money) on getting the American PATRIOT Act repealed? I suspect an awful lot of ordinary Americans would be pretty happy about that as well for their own sake.

    1. Salamander

      You hit the nail in the head. When a company like google collects the data, it is only doing so for its own commercial advantage. However, when the US government then legislates to access that data, then it is doing so for its own political advantage.

      As bad as the Patriot act was, the cousins over the pond have since then cooked up or are the process of cooking up even worse legislation. Just look up FATCA and CISA/CISPA.

      FATCA became law in 2010. It seems relatively harmless at first glance but once you look below the surface you realise it has a truely frightening scope and has been described at the biggest piece of American imperialism since the invasion of the Philippines in 1899.

    2. Yag

      I'm torn... should I upvote or downvote?

      This is a legitimate rant, but a bit irrelevant to the subject of the article (the economic value of data)

  2. the spectacularly refined chap

    The value can be in the retention

    Information is not like other commodities in that you can transfer it while still retaining it yourself, i.e. if I tell you my name I myself still know what my name is. For data that is available at no cost (i.e. it requires no effort to collect or collate) then a traditional model argues that its value is little more than the cost of physically transferring it.

    However, that ignores the value of exclusivity - not the value of me having that data but the value to me (even if only perceived) of you not having it. I may have good reasons for wanting you not to know something even in a commerical context. I might look up a 1970s sexploitation film on Amazon one evening but not want similar titles recommended to me the next day in the office. I may not want constant bombardment from hundreds of salesmen each time I am the market to buy some high-profit item. I may not want to harm my negotiating position when purchasing said item because the seller knows I need it immediately. I may oppose the information transfer for the very reason the business wants it: I do not want to be manipulated for that organisation's advantage and my own cost.

    These are rational arguments against giving information to all and sundry and show the assymetry in the transfer. The organisation is gaining information which is all this article considers, but on the other hand I am not losing information but privacy. It doesn't really matter want the real cost of that turns out to be: the mere perception of value translates directly to real value because I will rationally refuse to sell something for less than I think it worth.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The value can be in the retention

      Too bad I can't give you more than one up-vote!

    2. Neil Barnes Silver badge

      Re: The value can be in the retention

      The very points you make: the data is not valuable to me per se, but my ability not to give you that data is - though the value is both variable, time sensitive, and subject sensitive.

      I don't want, as a rule, to be presented with 'you looked at this last time, so how about this?' or even 'others who bought that also bought this'; that has little value to me (and is the problem with advertising in general).

      It is privacy that I want; for the same reasons I don't have the house curtains open all the time and I close the bathroom door. I do things, research things, buy things, read things which are nobody's business but mine, and which however innocent or incriminating I choose not to share with the world.

      Even if the world is no more than a (hopefully) smart algorithm.

  3. peterkin

    You missed something

    A skilled bricklayer without a supply of bricks is valueless. Give her a lorry-load of bricks and mortar and her value shoots up. Google's data analysis skills and power are valueless without data to work with.

    In other words, the value of my, and your, and his personal data is the loss to Google (and others) if access to that data is denied. And that loss is considerable - it's Google's whole business. It looks as if our data is valuable after all.

  4. DropBear Silver badge


    Data may not have intrinsic value, but it certainly does have a value one is prepared to pay to acquire it and another value one is prepared to sell it for. And the millisecond I assert my price of selling my private data to you is exactly infinity dollars that data becomes priceless - and that's as fucking REAL a price as any other, considering you can't have that data unless you're prepared to pay that price. Simples.

    1. Rob Carriere

      Re: NO.

      Would that were true.

      You can set the price at infinity and your data will be stolen rather than taken.

      1. Andrew Orlowski (Written by Reg staff)

        Re: NO.

        Tim's argument works only if the individual are able to control either your privacy or your property rights.

        As DropBear and others have pointed out (better than I can), merely being able to withhold the data, and to name a price, makes you an economic participant. You'd have a market for that data.

        So tech companies would have to bid for your data, or induce you to part with it in other ways.

        Of course this is the last they want. Silicon Valley isn't really all that innovative - it's extremely lazy, and basically relies on legal loopholes, and the bet that people won't assert either privacy or property rights.

        File Tim's pieces under "Free Marketeers Who Hate Free Markets".

        1. Andrew Orlowski (Written by Reg staff)

          Re: NO.

          "Tim's argument works only if the individual are able to control"

          should read:

          Tim's argument works only if the individual is UNABLE to control'

  5. Justicesays

    So if one piece of data is so valueless...

    why is it so hard to opt out of data collection?

    cf. Supercookies, ignoring "Do not track" settings, opposition to Ad and script blockers.

    Multiple tick boxes needed to opt out of (or maybe opt into? who can tell) data collection with triple negatives and auto-re/un-ticking on page refresh.

    Companies used to rely on freely given information from "representative" samples, via surveys etc.

    Now they just want all the data , even from those that wouldn't have completed the survey because they don't see why they should give their life story to the company they just bought a fridge from.

    And they go to great lengths to get that information, in many cases against the laws of the countries they operate in (e.g opt in vs opt out).

  6. nijam

    A little oblique to this article, but...

    It would be interesting to speculate what would happen if the Data Protection Act went a little further - as you might logically consider it should, in fact - and specified that personal data is irrevocably the property of the person (i.e. the data subject), and consequently organisations (all of them*, not just Google, Amazon, or whoever else the good commentards deem inappropriate this week) need to licence it to use it.

    That licence could be for a fixed period, say a year, after which it would have to be renewed, so that the data owner/subject could validate it as accurate, relevant, and so on (as already specified in the DPA). All at the licensee's expense, not the data owner/subject's, of course.

    Just a thought.

    * EU, HMRC, GCHQ, all spring readily to mind, I'm sure you can all add to the list. No need for any of those pesky exceptions for government organisations, either.

  7. strum Silver badge


    Agree with most of the points about privacy. I just want to pick up on Worstall's sly dig at the EU.

    If my data is shared, under EU legislation, and it is misused, I have access to EU courts for redress (it might not do me much good, but at least I've got somewhere to start).

    If that data has been gobbled up by US interests, under some phoney 'Safe Harbor' agreement, then any dispute will be handled under US law - in which I have bugger all chance.

  8. PapaD

    I think part of the problem with this article is the assumption that the EU doesn't want US companies slurping up EU citizens data because they want to do the data slurping themselves, so that they can gain the benefit of the data.

    Completely missing the point that the opposition to the data slurping is because of the laws and expectations about privacy within the EU. We don't just want the data not slurped to the US, we want it not slurped at all.

    At least not without our express permission (opt in, rather than opt out)

    1. SImon Hobson Silver badge

      Have an upvote from me.

      I agree, it's not so much the value of the data, but the value of the privacy that the lack of that data implies.

      I put a value on privacy - not a value you could put a monetary amount on, but a value nonetheless. So I do all I can to reduce the spread of my informations - like carefully looking for those hidden "untick this pre-ticked box if you don't want us to not refrain from selling your data to all and sundry", and yes, just the other day I did find a website where the boxes were hidden until you clicked on some text which made them appear (and the default to be spammed) !

      But Tim is wrong on one point. There is actually, in many cases, an actual value that someone is prepared to pay an individual for his/her data. Many retailers (pretty well all the big ones now) have some sort of "rewards" scheme. With those, there is pretty well a clear connection between handing over data (who you are, what you but and when) and getting rewarded in cash terms for that.

      For some of them, I've decided the rewards are worth the cost, for others I've decided otherwise.

      Mind you, I do sometimes do things to subvert the system. I don't always use the "loyalty" card, and I often pay cash. Sometimes I'll do the shopping in two parts and only put some on the card.

      Oh yes, and I've even gone so far as to issue Section 11 notices to some data controllers. That then puts a relatively large cost on them for having used my data - each notice cannot be ignored (unless you want to be in deeper sh1t) and needs manual processing so the manpower cost is going to be significantly more than any gain they'll have made from having my data.

      And it has worked the few times I've used it.

  9. BanjoPaterson

    It's the Difference Between Data and Information

    This is a basic point in information science and statistics. Raw data (e.g. temperature points across time at one or more locations) has little value until it is processed into something that allows one to use it, e.g. predict future temperatures. It's that use, or potential use, that has value.

    As correctly pointed out, Waterstones UK and Amazon may both have data about my book spending habits, but I'll lay a wager it'll be Amazon that will process the data better and gain information from it allowing them more future sales from me (I know this from experience. Amazon are good at predicting what I'm keen to buy next. Damn them).

    1. Andrew Orlowski (Written by Reg staff)

      Re: It's the Difference Between Data and Information

      This isn't a argument over whether our personal data has value when processed. Tim says none of the value accrued by the processing should go back to the people who contribute it. There shouldn't be an economic relationship or a market in data.

      Obviously, thermometers are not really in a position to bargain.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: It's the Difference Between Data and Information

      In my experience of Amazon and others they are very good at targeting me with adverts for stuff I have just bought and no longer have a requirement for.

      Anonymous as I don't want them to use this to refine their capabilities against me.

  10. veti Silver badge

    Who owns data about me?

    The European philosophy is based on the assumption that, by default, I own data about me. That's explicitly spelled out in the European data protection directives, and in parallel laws across the EU.

    The American philosophy is that the data belongs to whoever takes the trouble to gather it.

    The difference becomes stark when you consider this question, "how do you attach a market value to information?" If I own my data, then Google should be approaching me openly and asking how much I'd be willing to part with, and what I'd ask in return for it. That's why you now see those "cookie" notifications all over the web. But if the collector owns it, there's no need for them to do that - they can just set up their surveillance infrastructure and watch me all day long, and that's that.

    But Tim, here, is conflating these two approaches. "Value to me" of my data - is for me to say. If I can't exploit it myself, it doesn't automatically follow that it's "valueless" to me. I don't anticipate getting a lot of money for my 1-year-old child either, but that doesn't mean she rightfully belongs to some hypothetical trafficker who could get a good price for her.

    The "value to Google" of my data is something else entirely. Economically, it's almost certainly worth more to them than it is to me, and they can probably on-sell it much more profitably than I can, because they add value to it by combining it with data from a billion other people. But that doesn't automatically make it "theirs".

    You might as well argue "the contents of your fridge would be more valuable to someone sleeping rough than they are to you, therefore they are the rightful owners of that food". No, they're not. That's not how "ownership" works.

  11. DCLXV

    I can't help but think we ought to all have bots that spaff chaff at Facecrook et al. making it appear that we are all incredibly dull humans interested in only typical vices with no suggestion that we might possibly even be capable of any sort of thought crime that hasn't yet been made illegal but will at some point during the mandated data retention period.

  12. RLWatkins

    missing the point....

    "The thinking seems to be that we must protect European information from being sucked up by American corporations because it is valuable and we Europeans should exploit that value."

    Er, no.

    We must protect European and American information from being sucked up by *any* corporation because their doing so violates the privacy of the people whom that information describes. Re-casting that argument in terms of the commercial value of such information obscures that very important issue... perhaps intentionally.

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