Selling your data is bad, is bad, come on, you know, is bad. 🎼

We deserve a fair share of the value of our data, but is selling it really a good deal? Having a broker to negotiate a paycheck for us is useless and -to some extent- wrong. A better solution would be to partner with business and create a new data ownership toolkit, to unlock sustainable data “pro-action” for both of us.

Riccardo Zanardelli
7 min readDec 1, 2019

Key takeways:

  1. The digital economy is broken, but selling our data will not make us rich and will not fix the problem;
  2. There are many reasons why selling your data is bad… here you find 3 of them;
  3. The solution is leaving data sharing behind and create a new model of trust and data ownership together with big platforms;

“Who’s bad?”. Big service platforms and social media using our data to make money? Or us, who accepted the “free for data” proposal without wondering if it were sustainable? Maybe none, maybe there isn’t really a “bad guy” here, but just something to fix.

(The super famous videoclip you should be singing while reading the headline of this piece)

The need for growth characterising the first era of the digital economy was inevitable and “free for data” has been its turbo boost, mutually agreed. But along this journey we have made a great mistake: we allowed the digital economy to pivot on data sharing, a bug that has gradually eroded the system from the inside.

If Elmore James was here today, he would have probably changed the title of his famous song from “Shake your money maker” to “Share your money maker”. Because it’s true: data is a superbe money maker, especially when it is shared.

Data makes personalisation algorithmically easy, ubiquitous and super effective. This attracts advertising budgets, growth and exponentially more data. This is nothing new and it’s no surprise that many are reclaiming their slice of the cake.

Although I am not going to discuss here whether such “give me my slice of the cake” claim is right or wrong, my point is that selling personal data is not the solution. And while being offered a paycheck for data sometimes sounds like a genuine proposal, my argument is that you should never accept this offer.

Here’s why:

1. Your paycheck is unlikely to be that fair. You are not going to easily determine which is the market value of your data, so it’s likely that you’ll just accept what others think the mass market will accept. For example: how much is the value of the photos you share on social media in a year? It depends on who you are and on how much you know about the potential of your data.

Where’s my money? (Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash)

I give you 3 examples whose first 2 are really optimistic, but straight enough to give you a clear picture:

  • Option A = If you post up to 20 photos per week and you’re not a VIP or a professional photographer, you are probably thinking “who’s gonna make money out of my pics?”. So you’ll maybe ask just a few cents, maybe less, aren’t you? Let’s say about ½ cent per photo. This makes up to 5$/year. Not enough to get rich, but more than nothing.
  • Option B = You know that, with relatively easy computer vision capabilities, a business can determine who is in your photos, which emotion is on his/her face, eventual texts or logos in the scene, objects, body positions and gestures, type of ambient and a lot more. Your photos carry a lot of potentially information that machine learning has become very effective in the capture of. You also know that this data can allow business to be more effective in selling you stuff that you might need or like. Assuming that:
    - your average online shopping basket is 200$/month;
    - all this data, properly used, increases your conversion rate of about 10% (it’s an example, ok? ;-);
    - also, the conversion rate of the 10 people closest to you can make +1%;
    …this means that your photos can drive relatively significant additional sales, let’s say revenues for roughly 400-500$ per year. Will you ask something like a 2% commission? It’s a lot, but maybe you’ll think “I deserve this”. This makes up to 10$/year.
  • Option C = You know that a photo of your face -and/or body- carries a lot of information about your health. Also the type of photos you shoot says if you are happy or depressed. By analysing the evolution of your bodily attributes along time, one may determine some predictions about your health and employability in 5, 10 or 20 years from now. You also know that one accurate and scientifically supported recommendation in this field could potentially improve your life for the better. How much will this be worth? Maybe thousands of dollars. This is a quite interesting scenario, isn’t it?

Now, what’s the fair value for your social media photos? Likely, the majority of people will find Option A reasonable and paychecks will be accordingly determined on a statistical basis. The mass will probably systematically ignore option B & C and still be happy.

The result:

☞ The more you are conscious about the value of your data, the less you are going to be satisfied by a paycheck sized for a mass-market who still ignores the potential of data.

2. If you sell your data there’s a good chance someone else will do the same, again and again. Selling data with the current data economy model means sharing it and, sometimes, allow further sharing. And selling. And sharing. But while there’s a way to fix this problem (read this article to learn more), sharing is still today the dominant way to put data in action with unexpected consequences. One may say “ok, let’s limit the sub-sharing!” and this is right, but with policy-regulated contracts it’s very hard to know what happens behind closed doors and it is also hard to enforce data rights after they are violated.

☝︎ The digital economy without data sharing is feasible, but we need to develop it! ☝︎

☞ If you sell your data you move forward in accepting that others could/would do the same. No matter what contracts and policies say: you will probably never know what is going to happen.

3. Don’t sell a part of your self. In the digital space, you act through your digital self. You are your digital self. If you sell part of your digital being, third parties can make you flow through algorithms that you barely (or even don’t) know, understand and want.

☞ You are progressively participating to a new, digital ecosystem through your digital twin. Don’t sell it for today’s best offer!

It’s OK to ask ourselves questions about our data, how it is used and why. It’s also ok to wonder if (how, and when) we will be able to take active part in the data economy.

Personal data is an individual asset that we must be able to convert into value, both individually and collectively. But until the digital economy switches to a completely nel model of trust and data ownership, we are locked into a “data sharing black hole” that has come to an end also for big companies.

In the meanwhile, we have to resist to the temptation of easy monetisation. Selling our data ins’t the solution. This is my point of view and my advice, but in the digital space we are all independent and free agents.

My hope is that we could use this freedom as a force of change, stimulating discussion toward new solutions. This is a challenge of strategy, business modelling and design rather than technological. We already have all the technology we need to fix the Internet, but we have to use them properly.


Riccardo is Beretta’s Digital Business Development Manager. Graduated in Engineering, he has served in various marketing roles before focusing on business transformation and digital platforms since 2016. In the last decade, he has developed a personal interest in exploring the potential of computational privacy/trust towards a more effective and sustainable data driven society. With the aim of contributing to a wide and open conversation about MIT’s OPAL project, he published “The end of Personalinvasion” (2019) and “OPAL and Code-Contract: a model of responsible and efficient data ownership for citizens and business” (2018). He is a member of the advisory board of “Quota 8000 — Service Innovation Hub” at TEH Ambrosetti. Since 2000 he experiments with digital art as an independent researcher. Some of his projects have been acquired from the permanent ArtBase collection of — NY (2002) and exhibited at the Montreal Biennial of Contemporary Art (2004), as well as at Interface Monthly (London, 2016, by The Trampery and Barbican). In 2015, he released FAC3, one of the first artworks in the world to use artificial intelligence. He is married and father of two. Want to drop a line? → riccardo [d ot) zanardelli {at} gmail [ do t} com



Riccardo Zanardelli

Digital Platforms @ Beretta | PhD student in Statistics & Data Science @ AEM, UNIBS | Engineer | Only personal opinions here | Code is Law (cit.)