Expert Voices

As Privacy Fades, Your Identity Is the New Money (Op-Ed)

identity protection
(Image credit: Identity Theft Image via Shutterstock)

Rob Leslie is chief executive officer of Sedicii, which provides technology for eliminating transmission and storage of private identity data during authentication or identity verification, and reducing identity theft, impersonation and fraud. Leslie is an electronics engineer with more 25 years of experience in information technology and business. This Op-Ed is part of a series provided by the World Economic Forum Technology Pioneers, class of 2015. Leslie contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

You may have heard the phrase, "If the product is free, then you are the product." It was coined at a time in the not-too-distant past when social networks were in their infancy and we were all mesmerized by the fantastic services we could consume to keep in touch and interact with each other — all for free!

Little did we realize at the time what that bargain actually meant. The vast majority of us had no idea social networks would be monitoring and recording all our interactions  as they learn everything possible about us as people, our habits, our likes and dislikes, and in some cases, our innermost, private secrets. This information, containing the essence of who each of us is, has been used to target us with advertising and other services, making the companies collecting this information global giants that earn billions of dollars in revenue every year. Personal information is extremely valuable.

So how much are you really worth?

The problem we have as consumers is that most of us have been unwitting pawns in a giant information game. We want the services for free, but have little concept of the value of the information we give back in return. In fact, the European Commission estimates that the value of personal data in the European Union will hit more than $1 trillion by 2020. [Dutch Student Sells His Data for €350 but at What Price Privacy? (Op-Ed )]

Looking at the profits of the giant Internet companies begs the question: "Is there a case to be made that the trade is not fair and that we are being taken advantage of because we don't know what the value of our identity and other information really is?"

It is hard to put a value on a single person's data — but some have already started to try. The U.S. based company, Datacoup, promises to pay users $8 a month to part with their data on everything from credit cards to social media usage. 

On one level, such an approach gives consumers a degree of return on data many of us are handing over for free anyway, but on another level consumers are sharing important data with a third party to use for commercial purposes knowing that it will almost certainly be sold to other parties in some form. 

Logic dictates that in the world of personal data, all men, or women, are not created equal; any retailer will want to target those with the greatest spending power. In the same way in the business world, if a vendor or service provider can reach the person within an organization with purchasing responsibility they are more likely to achieve a sale. The greatest testament to the value of data is the effort that some will go to in order to acquire it. 

The situation as it existed would likely have continued for a long time, as the global public either didn't care or was unaware of what was happening — or were powerless to do anything about it — had it not been for a principled young man by the name of Edward Snowden . Almost singlehandedly, Snowden has managed to shine a light on the practices of some governments and big business, and has explained what it means for all of us as it relates to our privacy  and our personal data. 

This has opened a lot of people's eyes to what has been happening, such as the U.S. government accessing citizens' Google and Yahoo accounts. As a result of this changing environment, in a survey by the Pew Research Center in 2014, 91 percent of American adults said that consumers have lost control over how personal information is collected and used by companies.

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A right to digital privacy

In 2016, it is expected that the European Union will enact a new Data Privacy Directive, encompassing the so-called "Right to be Forgotten." For the first time, a law will explicitly state that identity and other personal data belong to the individual. This will give all European citizens the right to control how their identity — and maybe more important, their personal data — is consumed. It is the beginning of a radical change in the balance of power in the relationship that consumers have with the companies that provide us services over the Internet. For the first time the consumer will have a voice.

In addition to the consumer being given a voice, this new directive will be backed by stiff penalties for those companies who fail to comply with it. If an organization fails to comply, they may have to pay a price as high as 2 to 5 percent of their global revenue. Because of this, I expect that the nature of the relationship will change and it will put each consumer at the center of his or her personal data universe. It will empower the consumer to make choices as to who, how, when and where identity is consumed, and critically, how a company rewards consent when information is used. In the U.S., Google and other industry players along with data-privacy campaigners have recently been lobbying Congress over data privacy laws, which, at nearly 30 years old, are woefully out of date — and this pressure is only set to increase. 

Judging by how much money is made today from people's identity and personal data, this will be a big opportunity for consumers.

Read more from the Technology Pioneers on their Live Science landing page. Follow all of the Expert Voices issues and debates — and become part of the discussion — on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.