(Photo by Tyler Woods)
The proposition most of us have accepted either consciously or unconsciously — that we get stuff for free on the internet in exchange for the creators of that stuff knowing everything about us — is one that Dawud Gordon fundamentally rejects.
“They make billions, you get Gmail!” he said.
"Bringing users into the personal data economy is an idea that's ready."
Gordon, who’s based in Williamsburg, and his cofounder Ulf Blanke, of Zurich, have developed a new service called TwoSense, which just went live in the app store this month. The app tracks (with your permission) all the personal data on your phone, from where you spend your time to the route you take to get there, and much more.
But it won’t give that data to anyone.
Rather, it will guard it and sell it on your behalf to marketers. Gordon estimates the average user could make $50-$100 a month off their data.
This seems to represent a completely new approach to data. If Facebook and Google are making all this money off your information, why shouldn’t you get a cut?
“Bringing users into the personal data economy is an idea that’s ready,” Gordon said over beers at Spritzenhaus on a recent balmy afternoon. “There has to be privacy, utility, and monetization. The first company to get all three of those things is going to win. It’s a huge market. Personal data worldwide generates $1 trillion of revenue. Whoever cracks it first is going to be able to pay the most to their users and will be able to get more users.”
But a main question is will people care?
We’re two years removed from the earth-shattering revelations Edward Snowden unleashed upon the American public. But, it turns out, they weren’t so earth shattering. In the end, most people just blinked. Some basic reforms were made, but that was about it. Maybe privacy just isn’t that important?
Several months ago, 60 Minutes made some headway in putting the issue back in front of a national audience.
“What most of you don’t know, or are just beginning to realize, is that a much greater and more immediate threat to your privacy is coming from thousands of companies you’ve probably never heard of, in the name of commerce,” 60 Minutes’ Steve Kroft said, baby blue eyes boring directly into the camera. “They’re called data brokers, and they are collecting, analyzing and packaging some of our most sensitive personal information and selling it as a commodity … to each other, to advertisers, even the government, often without our direct knowledge.”
"We all live in a glass house where it's not just your physical behavior but also your psychological behavior that's being observed."
News reports are fine, but Gordon thinks that besides (and possibly more important than) his app making money for people, it will also show them just how much of their physical and mental lives can be known through the swipes and taps of their cellphones.
“If your data and is showing you that you’re not sleeping well and talking to friends as much, based on only location and accelerometer level, you can understand a lot about yourself,” Gordon said. “‘Oh, he’s depressed? Let’s send him ads for ice cream.’ We all live in a glass house where it’s not just your physical behavior but also your psychological behavior that’s being observed. And as this goes on and gets more refined, that’s not a world I want to live in.”
While many people in the privacy world would share Gordon’s sentiment, not all of them would agree that people’s behavior is easily altered.
“Whether personal behavior shifts by being more cognizant of how much data they’re giving away elsewhere is hard to tell,” said David Huerta.
Huerta is the co-organizer of Crypto Party NYC, an organization which hosts events teaching people about online privacy and how to keep their data and information secure. “I’ve seen hardcore transhumanists ragequit quantified-self data collection instead of changing habits after getting fat-shamed by their Fitbits too much, so I’m skeptical transparency in one app will necessarily lead to better privacy habits holistically.”
Certainly, TwoSense won’t immediately change the balance of power when it comes to the online leviathans. Facebook and Google will still gobble up your data and sell it. TwoSense would really be taking a cut from the backwaters of the data market: credit report score websites and data broker websites that trawl the depths of the cookieverse. TwoSense aims to analyze its anonymous data and answer specific questions that marketers have for which current data brokers just turn over troves of data.
Gordon’s hope is that, eventually, greater awareness of the power of one’s data will induce people to think more critically about their online behavior and also begin to reject the grand bargain, creating a space in the market for online services that do respect privacy (like Ello tried to be).
“Hopefully people start fighting back,” he said. “That’s good for the people and that’s good for our business.”