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When it comes to trading your data for free services like Facebook, Google Search, Gmail or Twitter, are you getting a fair deal? A growing roster of people say you should be paid for your personal information. But so far, no one has quite figured out how that could work. Two startups are working on it.
Digi.me is an app that lets you connect all your various online accounts. It scoops all the data they have on you and puts it in one encrypted location that you can control. And then a new company called Universal Basic Data Income, can, with your permission, pay you to share some of that data with companies or researchers.
I spoke with Dana Budzyn, who is a co-founder and CEO of UBDI. First, I asked her how it works. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Dana Budzyn: We do allow individuals to aggregate their own data across different applications and accounts, like Fitbit, Spotify, credit cards, Instagram, etc. Then we give these people a vehicle to basically share anonymized insights from that data with paying companies and researchers and nonprofits. With our application, we present individuals with different studies. Once you’ve linked your accounts, you’re able to click and view the details. It may include a question of a survey; which people are familiar with. It’ll tell you, “Spotify, listening to certain tracks,” or “We’re looking at finance” and “We’re looking at coffee trends. We want to analyze Starbucks or Peet’s coffee spending,” whatever it may be, and then you swipe to consent, and that data is anonymized on your device, aggregated in the back end and shared with researchers who obviously are paying you.
Molly Wood: You, as the consumer, are actively contributing, right? I, the consumer, am actively opting in and participating and getting paid.
Budzyn: Yeah. And that’s just one thing that we heard. There’s been, with everything that in the data space that can be scamming, we really wanted to take the approach of, “Don’t just come link your accounts and trust us.” Trust is at an all-time low. We get it. Everyone’s been lying to people, corporations, there’s no trust there. There’s no trust in government, and we really felt to build that trust, we wanted people to take a more active role and just be as transparent as possible. There are these different groups of people, whether you’re a female or a runner or a skier, different companies want to be matched with you. Because of the way that we’ve built this, we still protect your privacy and only show you studies that are relevant to you, but because of that, we can pay you more and let you take that active role and not waste your time or your effort and make it pretty quick and simple.
Wood: How do you protect that data? Obviously, you’re talking about a pretty big treasure trove here.
Budzyn: Our partner Digi.me, they don’t see, touch or hold the data. They give you the only key to access this and then allow you to share that data with apps like ours when you choose. It’s actually a two-apps system, which is very nontraditional. What it allows us to do is do a lot of edge processing and analytics on the device. We’re minimizing any of the data that leaves your device. What we call tags is called private match, right? These things that I’ve mentioned, you’re a runner, you’re a skier, you’re female, right? That’s all kept on your device. Neither us at UBDI or any of our partners know who you are, and we ensure that no profiles are being built on people.
Wood: Purely mercenary side of things — how much do you expect that a consumer could make participating with UBDI?
Budzyn: For some people, it will be hundreds. I think for many people, it will be thousands. I think there will be other communities of people, maybe it’s in the future of medical data or whatever it is, some special things about you that make you unique, that thousands upon thousands of dollars, maybe five to 10,000.
Wood: Let’s be explicit about why some people would make more. Why is some data more valuable than others?
Budzyn: I think a lot of people think when I say that I fundamentally believe that rich people are going to get richer, right? And that’s the concern, right, that they’re like, “Oh, well, the CEOs are going to be the ones that people want to reach out to.” I don’t actually think that’s true because some in emerging countries around the world, in places where there is a lack of data, in communities where you don’t know where those communities are flawed or things that could help fix them, there’s a lot of spend happening, whether it be through charities or governments or whatever, to find out how to boost communities up. Instead, they could just be putting that money into people’s pockets because they know best. I do think, of course, there will be the CEOs, who someone might pay for an hour of their time and spend a lot of money. We’re not shy about that. But I also think there’s this opportunity for low-income individuals that are unique and are being, quite frankly, studied across governments, nonprofits and even companies themselves, that they do want to reach those demographics of people and haven’t had the means to. I think there’s a lot of money in it for low-income families, and I think it’s a big step forward for where we are in this country and around the world.
Wood: What industry gives you the most business right now? Who’s the hungriest for information?
Budzyn: Right now the clients that we’ve been talking to — and I wish I could say names, but not yet — but the kinds we’ve been talking to are mostly in the retail space, whether it be clothing or electronics, there’s people that are just trying to find more, not even necessarily about customers that aren’t shopping at their stores, but about customers that are, and what type of people are drawn to their stores, and what are they coming there for, and what do they like when they’re in that experience? There’s also a lot of customers that one thing we do very well is comparative analysis, where if you wanted to look at, you were requesting individuals to say, “I’d like to look at females spending on Uber versus Lyft.” And then I’d like to ask a set of questions on top of that on, “Are you picking [a] ride share because it’s safe, because it’s convenient, because its price, whatever that may be?” Pairing that data to see that maybe females find Lyft safer. That’s something that we might have started to find. There are just these unique things like that, that any company looking for some comparative analysis between them and a competitor company, that’s something we do very well.
Wood: How does UBDI make money?
Budzyn: We take 20% of what companies are paying, and 80% goes straight back to the individual. Pretty easy transaction fee there.
Wood: Sometimes when you talk about the idea of paying people for their data, you will have privacy experts who say, “OK, but you’re still buying into a flawed system. You’re still buying into a system that relies on people’s data, and wouldn’t it be better if we just didn’t do that?” Is this still allowing people to participate in a system that’s going to just want more of their information forever?
This is a step in absolute better direction than the data economy we have today … giving people choice, I think, is always the better path.Dana Budzyn
Budzyn: It’s interesting. For one, there’s different nonprofits and other local governments that we’re opening access to and helping them. But also, part of privacy, which people somehow seem to forget is about choice. You should have ownership over your data, and you should be able to choose for yourself. So, for them, go ahead and choose what is best for you in your life, but you don’t get to make that choice for me. To those people, I want them to challenge, I want them to hold us accountable. I’ve been active in different articles where they said other people wouldn’t talk to us. And I said, “Go ahead, call us whatever you want to call us with data monetization vehicles.” But at the end of the day, one, this is a step in absolute better direction than the data economy we have today. And part two, giving people choice, I think, is always the better path.
Budzyn told us UBDI has launched on Android devices but is still trying to get approval from Apple’s App Store. There’s a lot that’s interesting about this approach. At the end of the day, it’ll all come down to consumer behavior and how many companies are willing to pay for this information as opposed to just scrape it off the web, buy it from data brokers or advertise on Facebook. Changing behavior is all about incentives, right? And $20,000 a year is a big incentive.
Over to Apple for a minute, despite not approving UBDI yet. The company is pushing its own privacy tools in the latest version of iOS. There’s a New York Times article on how to take advantage of those. I’ve been trying out the thing where you can automatically silence calls from unknown numbers. My apologies to any PR people trying to reach me but, well, email me.
Amazon also released a lot of new voice assistant devices Wednesday in Seattle after controversy about how it was keeping some recordings and having human beings listen to them for quality assurance. Amazon made sure to mention that the new devices will have a lot of new privacy tools, including my new favorite, the ability to say, “Alexa, delete my recordings.”