By Sarah Morgan
Internet users are selling themselves to Google — and for cheap.
The web giant’s Screenwise program offers consumers the opportunity to let Google track their internet activity — and get paid for it. Google offers participating “panelists” a $5 Amazon gift card for signing up, and additional $5 gift cards every three months, up to $25 total. But given that experts estimate an individual’s personal data can be worth as much as $5,000, consumers who sign up may be selling themselves short. “I’d probably want a little bit more,” says David Jacobs, a consumer privacy fellow at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit focused on privacy, civil liberties, and technology issues.
But for all the concerns over Internet privacy, Google is actually having to turn people away. The site currently says “we are overwhelmed by your interest at the moment” and doesn’t allow new sign-ups.
To be sure, this is an entirely opt-in program, and consumers have been joining focus groups and letting Nielsen spy on their TV habits for small fees or prizes for years. The program also doesn’t create targeted ads, and that kind of information is generally worth more money than aggregate data about general browsing habits. A spokesman for Google says, “This is a small, optional, online panel, similar to others run by many web and media companies.”
Google already tracks what sites people using its Chrome browser visit, as well as what people search for. This program likely allows for more in-depth tracking, potentially including information like how long a user stays on a particular site, or possibly even where their mouse moves on a page, Jacobs says. The basic description Google provides simply says users will let Google see “the sites you visit and how you use them.”
The bigger question, Jacobs says, is what programs like this do to our conception of privacy and what it’s worth. Does a $5 price tag “devalue privacy,” or does creating a clear marketplace for data increase the value of something most of us are currently just giving away? “It might just be something that causes people to realize that their information has monetary value in a way that they didn’t realize before,” he says.