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How Privacy is Becoming a Commodity to be Bought and Sold

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Since the high profile data leaks by Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, privacy has been a very big topic. In tech circles, it’s so big that both Assange and Snowden delivered video addresses at SXSW. Omlet, an app that was on display at SXSW, even prides itself on being secure and decentralized. But is paying for privacy the wrong solution to this problem?

Omlet is an open messaging platform that allows users to share text, images, files, video and music “with anyone, from any device (iOS or Android).” But what’s more interesting is the focus on privacy. The front page of Omlet.me makes the point that “your data will never be monetized or sold for any money.” The company doesn’t even store your data; users must store it themselves in the cloud.

The app itself is free, but it does have a system of in-app purchases, which is where the privacy economy comes in. Scott Savage and Donald M. Waldman of the University of Boulder’s department of economics released a paper last year, analyzing how much privacy was worth to mobile users. The figure they settled on was $5.06 for an app that concealed histories, location data and eliminated advertising.

Vice contributor DJ Pangburn sees this number, along with high profile privacy stories, as the beginning of privacy-as-commodity. “The privacy economy essentially uses the weapons of free market capitalism — which created the data monetization market in the first place — against it,” he wrote.

Turning privacy into something to be purchased could easily lead to a gold rush where companies try to bring consumers the most privacy, which could be very beneficial. The more likely result will be a tiered system, where some can afford to buy privacy, and others can’t. Datacoup has decided to go the other way – why not control and sell your own personal data for fun and profit? But that’s still an economic solution.

Is money the answer to the privacy problem? Not according to Pangburn: “[Omlet’s] privacy economy notion seems a lot like an admission that the fight for privacy is finished unless we fork over money.”

Image credit: Sean MacEntee

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