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Imagine if someone was siphoning the gas from your car without your knowledge – little by little until, eventually, they had enough gas to open their own gas station and sell what they had taken from you. Now, imagine the gas is your personal data – the digital information trail you leave behind every time you use a connected device – and the siphoning bandit turned entrepreneur is Big Tech. Suddenly, this imaginary scenario isn’t too far from our current reality.

Marketers aren’t particularly fond of talking about consumer data these days because of the negative attention it brings with today’s spotlight on data privacy. So, let’s talk.

Your personal data as it’s being used now

Developers need this valuable data to build thriving digital businesses that customize personal online experiences. And, whether we like to admit it or not, as consumers, most of us enjoy these highly customized experiences. According to TrustPilot, 75% of online shoppers like brands to personalize their offerings and messages, and 74% get frustrated by content that isn’t relevant to their lives.

At the same time, as web browsers controlled by the Big Tech companies collect massive amounts of user data to create detailed profiles and track us across the web, consumers are feeling their privacy is being invaded. We don’t know what our data is being used for, how it’s being stored and who it’s being sold to. Most people have no idea how much of their personal information they’re freely sharing with the world. Still, we are increasingly fearing the security of our personal data, and rightfully so with the recent onslaught of data breaches


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​​Unfortunately, our personal data has been used to create negative personal and social outcomes when used improperly. Leading up to political elections, algorithms have been designed to create echo chambers. Various studies show Facebook’s personal data leading to teens committing suicide. Consumer data is being used to drive product adoption for Facebook and Google, and they don’t have our best interests at heart. 

Your personal data as it could be — currency you own

While there’s an extreme dichotomy between the downside and upside of businesses using personal data, we’re at a crossroads where consumers are tired of their data being used unknowingly by Facebook, Google and others. What if consumers had highly granular control over their personal data as a unit of economic currency they own? 

Consumers have never been able to control how their data is “spent” (aka what companies can use their data for in order to make as much money as possible). What if we could control how our personal information is spent and capture some of the economic value that’s created through the buying and selling of our data? Our data is valuable, and we should be able to say how and when it’s used.

It turns out, marketers can actually get a much richer data profile with the right opt-in programs. Businesses get better results when they ask consumers questions versus passively collecting data and trying to guess their intentions. When you ask consumers for their data and give them control over how and when it can be used – instead of stealing it – you end up with more powerful targeting parameters. Collecting massive amounts of data that’s potentially irrelevant actually makes it harder to accurately target audiences. Smaller amounts of cleaner data work better every time. 

The future of consumer data looks brighter — and more ethical

Ethically sourced consumer data is coming. Today, responsible companies care about their communities and the environment, and are adopting corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies because that’s what current and future employees want to see, and it’s the right thing to do. Companies are planting trees. They are donating to local schools and charities. Ethically collecting consumer data is coming as part of CSR policies.

Just like we can’t dump sludge into the river and can no longer steal our neighbor’s cable TV, companies aren’t going to be able to steal consumer data much longer. As a company, you can no longer ignore how you are collecting consumer’s personal information. 

It’s time consumers had the control. While we don’t necessarily earn our data currency, we should be able to decide how we spend it. In fact, we should be able to spend our data currency at websites and businesses of our choosing. 

What if we extend that to spend our data at businesses we care about like our favorite neighborhood bar or restaurant? When I go to a bar, the TV commercials are increasingly being targeted specifically to me. This is the future. In the next 10 years, we are going to see a fundamental evolution of how we monetize physical spaces, the way that we’ve monetized digital spaces. And it’s going to be driven in large part simply by this concept of consumers having a data currency that they can spend.

Let’s use people’s data to improve their online and real life experiences, instead of focusing on making as much money as possible. Let’s take what was good about the internet, and not the horrible things that we’ve done on the internet simply because it’s been the Wild West and nobody has been paying attention. Get consumers to “opt-in” in the right situations for them, instead of making it difficult for them to “opt-out.” And not just because how we treat data currency is going to be part of the next CSR wave; but because it’s the right thing to do for consumers. 

Sam Mallikarjunan is CEO of


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