• 01.14.14

Your Data Is Yours, But Can You Take It Back?

Companies and governments mine everything we put online for profit and information. We can take back control.

Your Data Is Yours, But Can You Take It Back?
[Image: Data via Shutterstock]

Selling personal data is a lucrative trade. By harvesting information from our search engines and mobile apps, third party trackers and advertisers have turned the surreptitious practice into a $300 billion business. But the owners of the identities being sold don’t get to see a cent. All that could change in the wake of the NSA revelations with a popular movement towards data privacy.


Recent surveys have shown that consumers are beginning to connect the dots between mass government surveillance and the commercial abuse of personal data. A month after Edward Snowden dropped the PRISM bomb, the number of American Internet users changing their browser settings and opting out of mobile tracking jumped by 12% and 7% respectively. But in 2014, companies could use this new consumer awareness to their advantage. Startups, in fact, are already beginning to jump on the privacy marketability train. It’s only a matter of time before new tools allow individuals to reign in their data, control it, and derive a profit from where it goes.

“The way I talk about it from our startup side view is rewiring these markets so they’re ethical,” says Kaliya Hamlin, founder of the Personal Data Ecosystem Consortium, a rapidly growing network of entrepreneurs looking to hack this very issue. “Thirty years ago it was all about ‘green’ and fair trade, but now middle American moms are like: Where is my coffee made? Is this plastic bottle going to harm my children?,” Hamlin said. “Soon, middle American moms will ask: Is this data market and online world ethical?”

Small business owners who used to cater to niche markets of privacy-obsessed businesspeople and wonks are already seeing their client demographics explode. “There’s never been a time like this in history,” says Mike Janke, co-founder of the Dark Mail Alliance, a secure email provider that rose from the ashes of Lavabit, Edward Snowden’s preferred email service. “The absolute awareness across the board is just overwhelming.”

Janke believes that 2013’s epiphany over the U.S. surveillance apparatus will undoubtedly continue to fuel a new era of privacy awareness well into the future. He considers the reaction a delayed response to counter-terrorism policies enacted after September 11. “We took the leash off [the National Security Agency] at 9/11,” he says. “I don’t fault the NSA. It went out and it did what it does best. And we wake up and go, holy shit, how did we get there?”

About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data.