November 4, 2019

The importance of protecting your identity

Recognise the reasons why your PII is so valuable and why you need to do your best to safeguard your real identity online.

# Insights

In May of 2017, The Economist published an article titled “The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data”. While economists, journalists and the global online community alike have all done their part to clarify and challenge this statement (which was in fact suggested as early as 2006 by Mathematician Clive Humby), the importance and value of Personally Identifiable Information (PII) gains seemingly more precedence every year. And while you won’t see someone forking out the same cash for your Facebook profile information as lets say, your kidney – it’s important to recognise the reasons why your PII is so valuable and the reasons why you need to do your best to safeguard your real identity online.

PII vs. "personal information"

PII is typically information that can be used to potentially identify a specific individual. For example, your Date of Birth or your Passport Number. The definition of PII by NIST also includes any other information that can be linked to an individual to identify them (EG, medical or financial information). For the most part, PII can be defined as personal information that can directly lead to the identification of an individual.

The terms “PII” (Personally Identifiable Information) and “Personal Information” are actually legal concepts, and not technically defined concepts. Depending on where you are, and the purposes for which the term is being used, these definitions can change – so it’s important to understand that there is no one definitive definition for PII/Personal Information. For example, while the IP Address of an individual is typically not considered as PII, it is considered “Personal Information” under GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) in the European Union under certain circumstances. So companies handling/processing EU Citizens personal information may need to keep this in mind, when previously they might not have had these considerations. 

Data is worth more than Oil?

Unfortunately, your personal information is not necessarily worth anywhere near as much as oil – when you try to sell it yourself. Should your personal information be packaged alongside thousands (potentially millions) of other people’s personal information and offered under the pretext of reaching a specific audience/demographic for the sake of marketing and advertising – it becomes worth significantly more.

To put it bluntly, the company buying your personal information doesn’t actually care about you, or your personal information – they care about getting an advertisement/product/whatever in your face in the hope that you will buy it. Perhaps there are certain metrics included in your personal profile they’ve been sold that the company uses to rank you higher in some regards for the sake of targeting you, somewhat increasing the value of your information to them. But until an opt-in, regulated free-trade market where people offer up their personal information in real time to advertising companies for a negotiated monetary incentive – or better put, when individuals themselves will be involved in this market as opposed to companies selling their data without them knowing – you can expect your user profile to be sold to the advertising industry for as much as $0.005. Yes you read correctly, they bought your user profile for half a cent – only slightly less than the $50 a barrel of Crude Oil will set you back…

While your user profile that was bought for half a cent could be worth as much as $1,200 to an internet advertising ecosystem, don’t expect to be compensated for even the half-a-cent your profile was sold for. It is also important to note that companies like Facebook or Google aren’t technically selling your personal information, in the sense that they will not disclose all your personal details to the buyer. Rather, they will pay to put an advertisement in front of you as a specific type of person (EG, an 18-22 year old who’s interested in Mountain Biking).

The numbers don’t add up!?

Unfortunately, the numbers do add up. The problem is that Personal Information isn’t a finite resource that ultimately generates consumable power like oil. And unlike the industrial revolution at the turn of the 20th century, the mechanics of supply and demand are not as simple. Data is essentially infinite, and can be reused (and reanalysed) over and over again. Unlike oil, it can be used (and is in fact more valuable) after processing. In its raw form, data can be practically anything a computer can process/show. Oil, on the other hand, is oil.

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