The Hottest New Commodity is Personal Data

The Data Dollar Store was a shop that only accepted data in exchange for items. That’s right, data was this store’s form of currency. However, it wasn’t just data that this store required, but personal data. Appearing as a pop-up store in London in early September, the Data Dollar Store aimed to show people the true value of their personal data.

This store’s requirement of personal data largely changes its potential meaning. A Facebook video highlighting the shop narrated that customers could “buy merchandise in exchange for emails, personal photos, and WhatsApp convos.” After a customer made a purchase, the data would be displayed on a screen outside the shop, thus revealing these private conversations and photos to everyone else at the store. However, this version of the data would then be deleted after 30 days. In this way, the store strongly mimicked the methods of SnapChat, one of the many companies that we trust with personal photos. “We are all used to, in our everyday life, paying for things with hard cash, with credit cards, and the rest of it,” explained David Emm, a researcher who was asked for their opinion on the store’s message for the Facebook video. “What we don’t realize is that every day we also trade our data. But we don’t think about it.” Official news reports about the store say that it was meant to serve as a reality-check of sorts, forcing social media users to think more about what happens to a SnapChat photo after it “disappears,” or how much of our data Facebook keeps, or how advertisements on the side of our email become personalized for us.

However, Ben Eine, the artist who designed all the items sold within the store, seemed to have a slightly different take on it. “I want people to be worried about the information they’re giving away and then realize that they’re giving this information away all day, every day,” he said. He is concerned about how we are valuing our personal data without thinking about the fact that it is personal. In an age of media and entertainment largely driven by confessional content, it is not just on social media that pieces of information that could open us up to vulnerabilities are being proudly presented to the public. Eine presented the goal of the store as to not just make us more conscious of our personal data, but to change our data-sharing habits altogether.

However, an important factor missing from many reports is that the store was funded by Kaspersky Lab, an American cybersecurity company. Kaspersky have many packages for helping both individuals and groups protect their internet-surfing devices from hacking and malware. This puts into new perspective the statistics given on the Data Dollar Store’s website: “Because we don’t realize data has value, we don’t protect it. According to a global survey, 29% of people worldwide have become victim of a cyberattack, 39% leave their devices unprotected from attacks. A study about the value of data earlier this year also showed that people would give away their emotionally valuable data for surprisingly little amounts.”

Now, knowing the store’s patron doesn’t completely change the message behind it. Kaspersky Lab certainly agrees that we could all think a little more about what we are actually giving away when we accept the Terms and Conditions that we don’t read. But the message of the Data Dollar Store is bigger than that. The stunt highlights not only the surprising amount of value your data holds — but that this data can both bring you power and violate your privacy. It’s important to know that your information is always going to be valuable to different people in different ways. One of modern society’s worst kept secrets is that personal data has become one of the hottest commodities of the capitalist market. Thousands of companies now rely on it for feedback and improvements. In the case of Kaspersky, they rely on us wanting to protect it. And while they are right that we could all undoubtedly be more careful about who we are sharing our data with, this doesn’t change the fact that personal data truly has become the target of a power play.