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Wolf Richter: How Much Is My Private Data Worth? (Google Just Offered Me $$)

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By Wolf Richter, a San Francisco based executive, entrepreneur, start up specialist, and author, with extensive international work experience. Cross posted from Testosterone Pit.

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 year, assuming the project lasts this long, $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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38 comments

  1. Take the Money

    By all means take the deal. Then install a VPN service on all your home computers and browse away. All the data flowing through the spy router will be encrypted and goggle ( or is it oggle?) won’t know what sites you are communicating with. Free money!

  2. Stan Musical

    So Google has just established that your data has a discrete value. How far from there, to where any or all citizens of the US can sue or file a criminal complaint against Google and/or any other entity, private or governmental, for theft?

  3. Stan Musical

    I also have a question for Google, since at this point, having spied on me for years and thus no-doubt having boiled me down to my cyber-essence, they must have a much better idea than I do: who exactly are “people like me”?

    For example, I would personally think the beady-eyed crypto-fascist they have for a CEO is the diametric opposite of me, but I could be completely wrong, he himself might be “people like me.” That would be a fascinating bit of info to acquire, well worth the loss of that last smithereen (h/o G.C.) of privacy wedged in my pants pocket under the lint.

  4. allcoppedout

    I’ve just spent a very long week getting rid of Google and Microsoft from my home network. I still have chrome but use Startpage which claims not to track me. This doesn’t find NC in an NC search. I don’t really care about my personal data. It’s the adverts and nudging I hate.

    The internet is in the hands of the wrong people and the dire advertising-based business model. It’s the lack of alternatives to this that concerns me.

      1. Brooklin Bridge

        I use duckduckgo too, but remember that your IP is still visible to any site you visit. Duckduckgo won’t collect your search data, or at least that is what they claim, but the sites you navigate to will at least collect your visit (not visits to other sites) if they want to, or more to the point, especially if they have any Google advertisements embedded on the page – and, of course, most do.

        To remain somewhat anonymous to the sites you visit, without going through the hassle of the onion router, use a web proxy such as http://www.hidemyass.com/. Then, enter http://www.duckduckgo.com from there. Then enter your query on the duckduckgo page that was returned to you by hidemyass.com. This won’t fool the NSA for an instant, but it thwarts Google most of the time unless they take an active interest in you. You can tell it works (unless you are as paranoid as me) because you will not have advertisements for what ever you looked at on the last commercial (product) page you visited following you around.

        Unfortunately, most of these proxies do take longer and sometimes they are too busy to complete your search. Also, some sites keep a record of proxy IP addresses and won’t service requests from them though that is more rare. So it can take a little patience but then my machine is ancient and slow. You may have a better experience.

    1. bob goodwin

      I agree that all of big tech (Msft, Goog, Aapl, Amzn, fb) rely on dominating a market segment for their business model, and so are inherently evil. But this is less about monopoly for rents than it is because convention and scale are needed to extract the value of technology, and because large business are needed to fund the investments.

      That said, each of these companies is very different in their strategies and tactics. Google is the most hated by the others, but maybe that is because they are successful. But they are the most predatory as competitors.

      What is important to consumers is that Google gets all of its revenue from monetizing information. That is not at all true of the other four. It is inaccurate to say that all big tech wants to spy, or even would benefit from being a spy. Of the others, only FB monetizes information as a primary strategy, but they only use freely submitted information.

      The other companies have their own evil aspects, and each has crowded out competitors and had other negative impacts. You can choose to boycott a spy. You probably cannot choose to boycott all evil.

  5. Skeptic

    My local Stuporstore now has a Points Plus Card for which you are solicited by the Human Cashier if you elect not to use the self scanner. A fellow customer the other day pointed out to HC that we all paid for these deals in the end. To which, I chimed in “It’s all about privacy.” To which the HC herself chimed in sadly “Well, there’s no privacy anymore!” Reality is trickling down!

    As for the $5, years ago I was involved in pharmaceutical marketing research wherein Doctors were sent a mailing with a questionnaire and a check made out to them for, even in the eighties, a measly $5. An appeal was made to their better selves that by filling out the questionnaire they would be doing God’s Work (a la Dimon) in assisting the development of better drugs, read more profitable. Anyway this questionnaire took about 15 minutes to fill out, so at that rate Doc was making $20 an hour! This data was then used to sell Doc drugs. Eerily enough in those days we called this Physician Profiling.

    So now we are all profiled. Decades later it is all about Data and, for me, how to skew that data so it is worthless.

    Why aren’t there more programs with which one can defend one’s Privacy?

  6. Spitzbergen

    I think its prudent to assume that your modem/router is already a major security risk, whether you’re getting paid or not. Build yourself an open-source firewall like pfSense or m0n0wall and put your modem/router into bridge mode.

  7. Mcmike

    Sounds like an opportunity for a fun prank Since you have the chops to set up a paralel network, do so. Then set up the google network for something like perhaps random generated surfing, or 24/7 hardcore porn, or only websites about cats… Or maybe google the term don’t be evil over and over.

    In truth, this gambit sounds like the set up for a reality show. Theres plenty of folks who’ll do that for fivebucks.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      I really like this idea of taking Google’s money and setting up a parallel network for them to monitor! More than just a prank this would be a fun way to proliferate misinformation to Google and its ‘friends’. I don’t know how to go about it myself – but maybe a spidermeister could craft a ‘personality’ Spider to run the parallel network. I think a goody two-shoes personality or two to select from, and maybe a couple of middle road ‘Rockefeller Republican’ personalities, a boyscout, many consumerists, some celebrity cultists, some moderate ‘Democrats’ and until Obama is replaced by a new model, several Obots — variants of all the personality types that our Masters work so hard to nurture in our culture. I would want to present an image of my family as a variation on the perfect mindless, apolitical, apathetic, consumerist dolts.

  8. Adriannzinha

    Google’s motto of “Don’t be evil” only extends to users of their services. The google chiefs are notorious for doing quite the opposite and also for trying to maintain a strong veil of privacy over their own activities.

    Google made it so the Swedes cannot control their own language, hence the ‘ungoogleable’ row. Hence, I’ll take a gander and say I’ve ungoogled. Gmail? Deleted. Google Maps? Nope. Google Search? No thanks, there are plenty of alternatives. Ditto with Microsoft, Bing, and the entire Silicon Valley spying apparatus – ditched those as well.

    1. diptherio

      Gmail is the hardest one for me to get off of. Been using it pretty much since it launched, have multiple accounts, and it’s tied to my YouTube account so canceling my gmail accounts might screw with that…not sure. Also, I just recently used the Google hangouts feature for the first time for a weekend conference and liked it quite a bit.

      Much as I hate to admit it, Google has done a derned good job of capturing me. It will be quite difficult to totally extract them from my on-line life…and honestly, that probably ain’t gonna’ happen any time soon…

    2. anon y'mouse

      google has captured my school, and hence tangled the students in its sticky web.

      you can’t communicate with the business-end of your school without a gmail that they provide for you. and all of the instructors use it, too.

      trapped, trapped, I say!

  9. Bunk McNulty

    Charter sent me a new router–free!–and told me I had to use it to take full advantage of its services. Now why would they do that? It remains in the box it was shipped in, and all is well. Except now I’m miffed that they thought they could buy me so cheaply.

  10. Brooklin Bridge

    Happy Thanksgiving to all you incredibly sophisticated commenters on NC and to Yves and Lambert and all who post here. May your stomachs be full and all these damn problems at least be quiescent for the afternoon.

    1. anon y'mouse

      “all of these damn problems” are chased away by pumpkin pie.

      at least for a few minutes.

      hey, didja know Ben Franklin wanted the turkey to be our national bird?

      1. diptherio

        If you’ve ever seen a bunch of bald eagles picking through a dumpster, righ along with the crows, you’ll understand why ol’ Benny wanted to go with something more dignified…like the noble turkey…

  11. bob

    I bet this offer is only good for “high net worth” individuals and/or zip codes.

    How many inner-city folk are they targeting? $60 a month? That would pay for most internet services/ISP.

    C’mon google, roll it out nationwide. End the cyber gap…

    Oh, that’s not your plan at all you say?

  12. susan the other

    Google is collecting superficial data. How often do we email about our illnesses, our discomfort, our dislikes and our disappointments? How often do we email about how much we value good sanitation; excellent public schools; how much we would like to see a jobs program; an environmental cleanup program; how much we really, really do not like Monsanto and its ilk. We say those things as comments on blogs but our emails are kinda trivial. So Google is after an infinitely wide but equally thin data set. Why. Why is all that superficial stuff so important to Google. So they can target us with ads and hopefully sell us some more crap. Or maybe get a premonition about the direction of human desire and vulnerability. Why don’t they just fucking ask us?

      1. susan the other

        They could email us and ask if we like Fritos or potato chips. If we drive a gas guzzler or a compact. If we think our college education was worth it. If we think our politicians are 100% corrupt or just 90%. If we currently have plans to bomb our local bank. Etc.

        1. susan the other

          On a scale from one to ten, how effective do you think the concept of “Justice for All” really is? On a scale of one to ten, how much do you value modern sanitation? On a scale of one to ten, how effective do you think “free market capitalism” is in achieving societal goals?

    1. bob goodwin

      ‘why don’t they just ask us?’

      asking is high friction, gets 1-2% responses, and requires the asker to justify the request. “Presumptive inclusion” is key to full participation.

      1. susan the other

        Interesting. So code getting around the law by design? Or by the limits of design? Either way tho’ what Google gets is a fugue of data. And then they have to interpret it and run the risk of such vague interpretations that it’s the blind leading the blind. Which they can use to their own ends, but not forever.

    2. kemo sabe

      They don’t really care about how good the data is. They got these suckers who prepay to buy their worthless data. GIGO!

  13. bob goodwin

    Use Bing. Seriously.

    Google is not allowed in our house, although my teenage son got a gmail account anyway.

    1. GRP

      How times change! It was not that long ago that people hated Microsoft so much that they would settle for any MS competitor. Now that Google has taken over from MS as the biggest bad guy, we have suggestions for using Bing instead of Google for search!

  14. ChrisPacific

    Privacy policy of every big tech company, deconstructed:

    1. We will collect every single piece of information about you that we possibly can, and remember it forever.
    2. But don’t worry, it’s totally safe because we’ll never share it with anyone.
    3. Except in the following cases: (lengthy list of exceptions)
    4. Or if we’re pretty sure we won’t get caught.

    So you’re getting spam on your e-mail account. What makes you think we sold it to a mailing list? I’m sure lots of people know your e-mail address. It’s not like it was a one-time throwaway address you used just for us, after all. Oh, it was? Well, you probably have some kind of malware that snooped it then. Certainly couldn’t have been us because we don’t do that kind of thing. It says so in our Privacy Policy! I’d like to see you prove otherwise.

  15. SJ Slezak

    Okay, okay: I get what you are saying. So, either sign up or don’t. With the way the NSA is involved in our everyday phone calls and internet usage, you might as well collect some cash in the meantime. Look at it this way: If you want to drive on the highway in your automobile, YOU have to abide by State and Federal highway regulations. Don’t want to wear a seatbelt? Too bad – You’ll be fined. You want to drive 80 MPH AND not pay tolls at the tollbooths? Tough luck. Your only option is to NOT DRIVE, as it is not your highway.
    Now, kids, Let’s apply this to the internet: You want to use the internet. Therefore, you have to abide by the internet provider’s/search engine’s regulations. Don’t want your info tracked, or don’t want your bandwidth limited after a terabyte? Too bad. Your only option is to NOT USE THE INTERNET.

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