How Much Is My Private Data Worth? (Google Just Offered Me Money)

The first thing I noticed after I’d removed the glossy brochure and a letter from the 8.5 x 11 envelope was the crisp $5 bill attached to the letter. I’m a sucker for free money. After peeling it off and securing it in my pocket, I started reading. It was addressed to “Dear current resident of …,” followed by my address. The five bucks was “our way of thanking you for considering participation,” the letter said. Participation in what?

“An exciting and very important new research study conducted for Google by GfK,” it said. It sounded harmless. The proposition? My involvement in “Screenwise” would help Google understand how I “use different types of media” and improve its “products and services.” In return, I’d get some money. How much wasn’t exactly clear up front due to the different steps and conditions. So, sucker for free money, I read on.

I would also get a “free top-of-the-line wireless Cisco router,” it said. Ha, I already have one of those, but this router would be special. It would collect all data flowing through it and send it to Google and GfK. A spy router!

They didn’t call it that. They called it the “Screenwise router.” Forget deleting cookies and browsing history, cleaning the cache, using InPrivate browsing for everything, and getting a new IP address several times a day by rebooting your modem (if you’re not locked into a fixed IP address). None of these shenanigans that you routinely use to jealously guard what little remains of your privacy would work.

Google would in effect sit inside the router and know everything – where you bank, the brokers you use, how often you visit their sites, what trading software you use, your internet phone calls, Skype conversations, instant messages, email, what health issues you might be dealing with, the porn sites you or your kids visit, where you’d like go to dinner. Everything.

Google would also install a special spy app on the smartphones of participating household members. The app would collect anything that’s done with the phone and send that data to Google. It’s an essential part of the deal.

Best of all, GfK would send survey people to your home under the pretext of installing the router (you installed your own router just fine). With Street View cameras attached to their heads? They’d look around and likely write up a report. Google would get to know the inside of your home, something it has been fantasizing about ever since it started photographing the outside for Street View.

To get me going with this wonderful program, the letter sent me to the Screenwise website. Once there, I did the math. In addition to the $5 already pocketed, Google offered me $20 “immediately” if I register and answer a stream of intrusive questions, and $200 for having the spy router installed and at least one computer hooked up within two weeks of receiving the router. So $225 to get set up. Google also offered me $30 per month for the first computer and $5 per month for each additional participating Wi-Fi-enabled electronic device, including things like Blue-ray players. So in a household with 7 participating devices, $60 per month. In total, for the first month, $255. If the project lasts a whole year, $945.

“Are you concerned about your privacy?” the site asked. Moi? “All of the information gathered from your household will be kept confidential in accordance with our privacy policy,” it reassured me.

Numerous lawsuits have been filed against Google over privacy issues. One set accused it of illegal and routine wiretapping to obtain data from Gmail users and from non-Gmail users who correspond with Gmail users. “Google uses Gmail as its own secret data-mining machine, which intercepts, warehouses, and uses, without consent, the private thoughts and ideas of millions of unsuspecting Americans who transmit e-mail messages through Gmail,” lawyers for the plaintiffs argued last summer to derail Google’s motion to dismiss the case.

Google then famously retorted that neither Gmail users nor non-Gmail users had any expectation of privacy. “People who use Web-based e-mail today cannot be surprised if their communications are processed by the recipient’s ECS provider in the course of delivery,” its lawyers wrote. ECS is your electronic communications service, namely Google.

Another set of lawsuits deals with data that Street-View vehicles collected for years from unencrypted Wi-Fi networks. Both sets were consolidated into two suits last month, and the judge allowed these cases to move forward – a big setback for Google. The ultimate data hog has numerous other projects, including one in beta that tracks and reports your brick-and-mortar buying habits. Because its business model is to collect data and monetize it.

So how good is Google’s privacy policy, given that it wants to collect all this data on my household? John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog explained it this way: “Calling this a ‘privacy policy’ is Orwellian doublespeak.” It should instead be called a “spy policy.”

OK, forget the privacy policy. “Simply put, you can help us better understand how adults and teenagers age 13 or older in your household use media,” the Screenwise site explains. It would “help Google and others to provide more relevant products and services for people like you.”

In this world, everything is for sale – if the price is right. People give up volumes of private data for the mere chance of becoming President. Teenagers give up their privacy just to have fun. But how much would it cost to buy the personal crown jewels from an average Joe? And how much more for the data of his family? Personal data is already being sold by data brokers and the like. It’s big business. But the average Joe never gets his cut.

If Google can establish a price that people would accept in return for all their personal data, now that would be a new business model with a juicy return. All the info Google could sell to advertisers, the NSA, the Chinese secret service, Amazon, whoever! It could sell the same information a million times. It could sell specific tidbits to one entity and the whole schmear to another. The possibilities would be endless. Wall Street could start trading in privacy futures.

In my case, Google’s offer of $945 for a whole year of data on everyone in my household was woefully inadequate. But what if they’d offered me $1 million? Everything is for sale. Because in the end, it’s all just a question of money.

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