“Monetizing Your Personal Data”
Communications of the ACM, January 2022, Vol. 65 No. 1, Pages 17-19
By Keith Kirkpatrick
“Considering issues around data brokers that enable consumers to collect revenue from the use of their personal data.”
During the initial wave of commercialization of the Internet in the mid-to-late 1990s, companies began collecting personal information from visitors to their Websites. The value proposition laid out by Internet companies seemed simple: allow companies to track and capture user behavioral and demographic data, in exchange for free access to content, as well as a more personalized and tailored experience that was based on an individual’s browsing and shopping habits.
However, few users or market observers could have projected the evolution of the market for data, which has become far more complex and valuable than previously imagined. In fact, large companies such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Alibaba, among others, have generated massive profits by leveraging the data collected, not only using it to improve the personalization and usability of their own sites, but by reselling that data to advertisers, to the tune of billions of dollars per year. In fact, March 2021 data from eMarketer indicated the Internet advertising market generated $378.2 billion in 2020, and projected that figure will rise to nearly $646 billion by 2024.
“Everything you do creates data that’s being bought and sold,” says George Stella, chief revenue officer of BigToken (bigtoken.com), a data broker that enables consumers to collect revenue from the use of their personal data. “So, the ad tech industry has collected a ton of information from people without their permission over the last 20-plus years, and made billions and billions of dollars off of it.”
Left out of this equation are the end users generating that data who, for the most part, do not share in any of that revenue. Enter companies such as the aforementioned BigToken, Invisibly, and Killi (killi.io), each of which serve as middlemen or brokers between consumers and the companies that collect data. The goal is to create a user ownership model in which consumers retain more control over their data, who is permitted to capture it, and who can profit from it.
Still, ascertaining the actual value of data that can be returned to individuals is difficult to pin down, according to market participants. This is because the real value comes from aggregating data from hundreds, thousands, or millions of users with similar characteristics and intents, and then selling advertising to appeal to these segments. The value of an individual’s data in legitimate commercial scenarios is simply not very high. “Invisibly would love to give people lots of money for their data, but the marginal contribution of your own personal data and its value is surprisingly low,” says Don Vaughn, head of product at Invisibly.
Spivack is concerned personal data programs could “quickly become predatory, preying on individuals experiencing tougher financial circumstances looking to make money fast.” He says without strong regulation, some personal data-monetization programs could become akin to payday lending programs or certain mortgage refinancing programs, which “intentionally target certain communities and individuals, and also have a history of unclear terms and conditions that ultimately hurt the consumer more than help.”
About the Author:
Keith Kirkpatrick is principal of 4K Research & Consulting, located in New York City, NY, USA.
- How much is your data worth? The complete breakdown for 2021, Invisibly, July 1, 2021,
- Owning Your Digital Self: Monetizing Your Personal Data | Dana Budzyn | TEDxPasadena:
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- Worldwide Digital Ad Spending 2021, eMarketer, April 29, 2021,