Social Media Web Culture

You Are The Product, Not The Client: The Personal Data Economy Explained

Chris Hoffman 16-07-2012

personal data economyAs Andrew Lewis once said “If you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold”. Think about the implications of that quote for a moment – how many free services The 100+ Best Websites on the Internet Here are the best websites on the internet to serve every one of your needs, broken into convenient categories for easy browsing. Read More do we use online every day? When we use Facebook, make a search on Google, or check our Gmail, we like to think that we’re the customer – Facebook, Google, or whatever other website is providing a service to us. But we’re rarely the customer online – instead, we’re the product being sold to advertisers and tracking networks.


More accurately, the product is our personal data, which is being sold to advertisers, collected in massive databases, and used to target advertising and built up detailed profiles on us.

You’re Part Of Many Huge Databases

As you’re no doubt aware, advertisers collect data about everything you do online – from the websites you “Like”, to the articles you read and the videos you watch – and this information is stored in massive databases. Social-networking websites like Facebook, which users provide with a lot of information, can build up even more detailed profiles about you. Increasingly, these databases aren’t disconnected silos of information – they communicate with each other to share information about you and build up even more detailed profiles.

This isn’t just taking place online, either. Websites like Spokeo are combining offline data with online data and placing it online. As Spokeo’s About page says:

Spokeo merges “real life” information (address, email address, marital status, etc.) with social network data (Facebook profiles, Twitter feeds, etc.) providing you with a profile that is among the most comprehensive profiles available on the Web.

Spokeo prohibits its use for employee screening and credit eligibility, but it isn’t hard to imagine that such tools would be used for these purposes. And, if Spokeo can do it, advertising networks can do it too.

personal data economy


Device Fingerprints

Think you can avoid this tracking by signing out of websites like Facebook and clearing your cookies How to Manually & Automatically Clear Your Browser History The websites you visit leave tracks on your computer. We show you how to delete your browsing history in Firefox, Chrome, Edge, and Internet Explorer. Read More ? Think again. Technologies like BlueCava’s Device ID create a “fingerprint” from your browser and computer’s settings that can be used to identify you even if you’ve logged out and cleared your private data. For a demonstration of how this technology can work – and just how unique your browser 7 Browser Security Tests to Try Out and Prevent Exploit Attacks Read More fingerprint is – check out the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Panopticlick page.

economics of personal data

Tracking the Trackers

To see just how many third-party ad networks are collecting data about you online, install Mozilla’s Collusion add-on for Firefox. After installing the add-on, surf around a little with it open and you’ll be surprised how many websites are tracking you. For the screenshot below, I’ve visited only four websites – but many additional websites are tracking me

economics of personal data


Specific Ad Targeting

Of course, these databases are being created for the purpose of targeting ads to ever more specific demographics. On Facebook The 10 Best Hidden Facebook Tricks You Should Make Use Of You might think you know everything there is to know about Facebook, especially if you’re a social media addict. Here are 10 tricks you probably don't know. Read More , an advertiser can target an ad to 30-year-old men with an interest in hiking living in a specific city. This is the kind of targeting advertisers want to engage in.

economics of personal data

However, these databases are also being used for other purposes. Political campaigns are building up huge voter databases and targeting political ads based on them, as well. This is particularly useful when online data – such as the type of articles a person reads or the type of content they “like” – can be combined with offline data about the person’s location and voting history.

Identifying Pregnant Women

You could be forgiven for thinking that this is an online phenomenon. However, the rise of “big data” is also leading to advertising targeting offline. One famous story illustrates both the potential of advertisement targeting in the offline world and just how far this targeting can be taken – advertisers can know more about your family than you do.


Peoples’ routine shopping patterns often change when they have a child, and Target wants to lure expectant mothers 10 Baby Websites To Help Expecting Parents Read More to shop at Target instead of at their competitors – so Target wanted to identify pregnant women. Specifically, they wanted to identify women in their second trimester of pregnancy and send specially designed advertisements to them. Crunching the data, Target’s statisticians discovered that pregnant women buy larger amounts of unscented lotions,  supplements, cotton balls, and other products. In total, Target found 25 products that could be used to create a “pregnancy prediction” score for a woman – in addition to showing just how far along a woman was in her pregnancy. Target then sent specially designed advertisements to these women.

personal data economy

In one case, a man angrily stormed into a Target store and demanded to know why his daughter – who was only in high school – was being sent advertisements for baby products. A few days later, the man apologized when he discovered his daughter was actually pregnant – Target knew before he knew.

To avoid such situations and possible backlash in the future, Target decided to mix baby-related advertisements with other advertisements – for example, by placing an ad for diapers next to an ad for a lawn mower – to make it look as if the advertisements were randomly assigned.


For a more detailed telling of this story, check out How Companies Learn Your Secrets in the New York Times.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Ultimately, Internet users take for granted that all the free services we access online are paid for by advertising AdBlock, NoScript & Ghostery - The Trifecta Of Evil Over the past few months, I've been contacted by a good number of readers who have had problems downloading our guides, or why they can't see the login buttons or comments not loading; and in... Read More . Sure, there are a few exceptions – Wikipedia The Origins of Wikipedia: How It Came To Be [Geek History Lesson] Read More is supported by donations, for example – but the vast majority of websites we use are supported by advertising that requires our personal data. If an alternative search engine that required a monthly subscription fee sprang up, it’s unlikely that it would take much market share away from Google – Internet users want free services whenever possible. In the personal data economy, we pay with our personal data instead of opening our wallets.

There are rumblings in governments about the need for some level of regulation – for example, to force advertisers to obey the “Do Not Track” preference in web browsers – but little has come of that so far.  Even if some of the worst excesses are trimmed back and some regulation is put in place, it seems as if the personal data economy and big data are here to stay.

Image Credit: Security CCTV Cameras via Shutterstock, SeanPavonePhoto /

Related topics: Online Privacy, Surveillance.

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  1. J. Random
    July 23, 2012 at 1:24 am

    [tl;dr alert] I use Ghostery, Adblock Plus, and all three Disconnect addons -- Google, Twitter, and Facebook Disconnect -- and a comprehensive Hosts file that blocks 99.999% of ad trackers, among other things. I do not use Facebook or any social media sites, and I always leave comments on websites using a pseudonym. (J. Random is obviously NOT my real name.) ;)

    I am actively seeking to learn how to "make use of" privacy-promoting Linux distros like Tails, Liberty Linux (it's actually "liberte'," in French, but the comment form won't let me put diacritics for some reason), Odebian, and Ubuntu Privacy Remix. (MUO has a great article on them, "Linux Distros for the Paranoid.") I almost never shop online, and if I have to, I use a throwaway prepaid gift card. Unfortunately, you can't use them with PayPal, so I don't bother with Amazon. Anything else I support my local yokels and buy brick-and-mortar with cash. When I search, I use Duck Duck Go with its Tor service, or the "lite" or HTML versions. I also use No Script and have started working with text-based browser Lynx.

    I've adopted a zero-tolerance fed-up policy about this: Any site that doesn't display properly in text or HTML isn't worth reading (MUO does!), and anything that I have to buy with PayPal, I can do without. I'm not the kind of person who feels like the last picked at kickball just because people feel the need to share every bit of minutiae of their otherwise unimportant lives on Facepalm and I deliberately exclude myself from the fray.

    That said, I would like to know how one can remove items from Spokeo. I did a search of myself and found that there was identifiable information, and I would like it removed or at least made as inaccessible as possible. I don't care if it's FOIA material, I don't want it up there. How do I contact Spokeo to have my information removed from its site? :(

    I also think it's a damn shame that one should have to resort to such convoluted tactics as I have just to cover one's tracks from the prying eyes of mega-co's like Google, Wal-Mart and Failbook, or the increasingly intrusive branches of the federal government that seem more intent on protecting said corporations than on protecting the people from them. :(

    It's sad that the new mentality of "corporations are people too" has unjustly played into taking advantage of a loophole in the sentiment "the people don't need to be protected from themselves." Google is not a "person" any more than Garfield is a duckbill platypus. But if there's any "person" who the rest of the people need to be protected from, it's Marky Mark and the Big Brother Bunch. :(

    End. of. Rant.

    • Chris Hoffman
      July 24, 2012 at 3:47 am

      Wow, that's absolutely fascinating. You go a lot further than many privacy-focused geeks I've seen -- I'm impressed!

      As far as Spokeo, you might want to try this process: [Broken URL Removed]

      This news website appears to have done it. I'm sure there are other Spokeo-like websites, through. No matter how off-the-grid you try to be, something about you is out there.

  2. Jessica Bowers
    July 17, 2012 at 4:00 pm

    I think people have a hard time realizing they are the selling point. Their data and content is what drives most of these sites, not the other way around. I don't understand why people get so up in arms over changes made to the free platforms they use. If you don't like it or agree with it, just don't participate.

    • Chris Hoffman
      July 24, 2012 at 3:45 am

      Very true. All these websites aren't providing a public service out of their own pockets -- if Gmail's advertisements upset you, pay for an email service that doesn't present such advertisements to you.

  3. Regi Polk
    July 17, 2012 at 3:59 pm

    I'm new, so it's new news to me.

  4. Ben
    July 17, 2012 at 8:34 am

    We are in the Information Age. Whoever has the best information wins.

  5. Arrow Quiver
    July 17, 2012 at 1:12 am

    Rehashed story. Nothing new here.

    • Shakirah Faleh Lai
      July 17, 2012 at 3:21 am

      He just want to remind us, maybe?

    • Chris Hoffman
      July 24, 2012 at 3:43 am

      I suppose it might seem "rehashed" if you're someone who reads all the tech blogs. Many people don't, so combining a lot of information from multiple sources into a single, easily digestible article is useful.

      Everything's been done before in some way or another. Most of the information you'll find on the web has been covered elsewhere, but that doesn't make it worthless.

      • Arrow Quiver
        July 24, 2012 at 5:06 pm

        ...says the author of a rehashed story.

        No one said this is worthless. And although it is true that "everything is a remix", I'm merely stating the fact that this is indeed a rehash, perhaps a even a retelling, of other people's opinions.

  6. elhaj
    July 17, 2012 at 12:00 am

    another add-on for Firefox to see who's tracking you is Ghostery

    if you havent already used Ghostery or Collision you will be shocked how many sites are tracking you.

    and before I forget a video on tracking, you may like to watch (from CEO of the Mozilla Corporation)

    • Chris Hoffman
      July 24, 2012 at 3:41 am

      Yeah, Ghostery is similar -- but Collusion provides a better representation!