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Sell Your Privacy for Eight Dollars a Month

That’s the typical fee if a company called Datacoup tracks your online activity and then sells it to marketers – with your consent. Other companies are also pursuing businesses that pay for personal information.

Spying is more topical than ever, and no wonder. Political and industrial espionage abound, celebrity snooping is rife, and then there is the ‘Big Brother’ of website cookies, Internet crawlers, mobile phone records, plastic transactions and countless observation cameras. All this makes it all the more ironic that a cadre of companies are exploring the business of explicit spying: they pay people to be watched. Hey, with the willingness of ‘Generation Selfie’ to share personal moments, why not at least get money for it? Here’s a look at five nascent business ideas.

Little Brother is Watching: Datacoup and co

Know your customer: what better way for companies to do that than to see their prospects’ online activity, from social media to credit or debit card transactions? What they bought, what they like, whom they ‘friended’. Datacoup sells such profiles in anonymised form, promising that “none of these aggregated data can be traced back to a particular, individual user.” This is less radical than it might sound, building on a long history of consumer market research (think of the clipboard-wielding woman at the airport or the mall, or the airport mall, who wants to ask you a few questions about why and where you bought what). Indeed, one well-known, traditional consumer researcher, Nielsen, is also in the game, as are Google and Microsoft, plus start-ups Embee, Placed, Prodege and Qmee. The other players don’t probe as deeply as Datacoup, instead monitoring your searches and which sites and apps you use. Pay for profiling won’t create a fortune, but thousands of data-providers already have signed on to generate ‘beer money’ of a few dollars a week.

From ad-Blocking to ad-Welcoming: Leaflad

Are you someone who runs from unwanted advertising, banning junk mail from your post-box, spam from your in-box and fast-forwarding through TV commercials? As Credit Suisse analyst Uwe Neumann points out, you might want to retrofit your browser with Adblock Plus from the German company Eyeo. If you use Apple devices, you can easily opt into Adblock (similar name, but a different, US-based company). But if you’re someone who wants to see some ads, possibly you’re a candidate for Leaflad, a company launched in 2014 by three thirty-somethings in the Dutch city of Delft. Through its app or its website, Leaflad exposes its users to adverts, but only those of their choosing. Lovers of, say, adventure holidays, skiing, trendy denim and gadgets receive content such as an article about heli-skiing in Whistler, an offer for Diesel jeans or a review of the latest iPhone – no random pitches in the lot. In return for their eyeballing, users receive a 20% cut of Leaflad’s advertiser fees.

Behavioural Science in the Real World: Placed and Teralytics

Who knew that American customers of Burger King also frequent Wendy’s and Taco Bell, but rarely McDonald’s? Or, that young mothers like shopping at Kroger or Aldi, yet will rarely show their faces at specialty grocers such as Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods? A Seattle-based company called Placed knew, indeed it even wrote White Papers about both topics. This fodder for marketers is drawn from an app loaded and used voluntarily on thousands of smartphones carried by ordinary consumers. Records of where the consumer shopped plus what he or she bought are transmitted to a central compiler that works out patterns and trends. Similar location- and activity-data is used by Zurich-headquartered Teralytics to look at similar behaviours, but also those beyond shopping. The company analyses people movement to optimise locations of businesses as well as to guide design of public roads and transport.

The Name is the Game: Personal

Sensitive individual information – a disease history, grades in school or university, job reviews, a previous arrest or a divorce – can undergo the ‘buried treasure dilemma’. Locked away safely, but where did you put them? This can be doubly confounding for more mundane privacies: your car’s service record, your registration details and preferences when flying or staying in a hotel or your emergency contact list. Washington-D.C.-based start-up Personal.com offers online ‘vaults’ where users they can store such data, and allows them to share it selectively – with family, friends and colleagues. Users can even share their personals with vendors; the latter have to pay, some of which is returned to the user. Not only can users keep all their sensitive information in one place, they can control who else sees it, and in principle they will be able to keep it away from the irresponsible (say, a website from which you want to buy something, but to which you don’t want to give permanently your credit card and address).

Oops, Give me Back my Privacy: Reputation

Revealing sensitive information can be like having a tattoo. Unless you’re a sailor or a convict, what sounded great at the time can eventually become an embarrassment or a career block. So if at some point you feel you have overshared, a Silicon-Valley-based firm can help you put bad news back in the box. Reputation.com eliminates online information about you or your business that is either inaccurate or true but shameful. The private (naturally) company earns its keep from user fees and from advising businesses how to deal with online reviews by websites such as TripAdvisor. Whereas the firms above pay consumers to be watched, this one gets paid by consumers not to be watched. Clearly, the business of privacy still works in two directions.