Let’s get personal

24th June, 2006

The Undercover Economist – FT Magazine 24 June

To the thud of junk mail on the doormat, we can all now add the intermittent ping of spam arriving in the inbox, the beep of fraudulent text messages and, increasingly, the evening inquiries from polite Indian telesales staff who must wonder why the English are so short-tempered. Eternal vigilance is required to keep one’s address, e-mail details and telephone number out of the databases of the spammers. But that might not be the right approach – perhaps we should give out more information rather than less.

Recently, for example, my wife and I bought a Wendy house for our daughter to play in. If the spammers found out they would bombard us with offers for toys, potties and parenting magazine subscriptions. That’s useless – we already have a couple of potties, after all – but it’s useless only because a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. It would have been good to receive offers from rival Wendy house manufacturers before we made our choice. Junk mail is only junk mail when it offers us nothing that we want.

We would like to receive information about products we’re thinking of buying. That would require us to tell other people what we want to buy – although not how badly we want to buy it. Sadly, we can’t trust the spammers not to abuse that information with a series of half-educated guesses about what they think we might like. So we leave them completely in the dark, to their loss and to our own.

A better system would be for us to compile a dossier about ourselves and our families, including birthdays and anniversaries, favourite authors and music, need for loans or mortgages, and what big purchases are under consideration. We would own that information and could give it or even sell it to companies who wanted our business. If the information was good enough, and used intelligently and sparingly, it could save a lot of time, effort and money.

That is the fantasy that companies hint at when they ask us to provide information, but we aren’t providing enough detail for them to send us much that we would really want to receive. Nor do we trust them enough to tell them more.

All that might be changed by agents who would manage our personal information on our behalf. This information agent would pay us for the privilege, and forward us offers in which we might genuinely be interested. The companies making those offers wouldn’t see our details – they would simply know that they were reaching 20 or 200, or 200,000 people with the characteristics they desire. We could be much more detailed in our dealings with the agent, specifying a desire for more offers, fewer offers, levels of confidentiality and an expiry date on the information.

Presumably people who are more generous with their own information are likely to be paid more for it. The whole concept is based around the insight that individuals could and should have clear property rights to their own personal data. It was explored by Kenneth Laudon, an information technology professor, in an article 10 years ago, and brought to the attention of economists by the economist and technology pundit Hal Varian.

Some companies are already starting to offer this kind of service, although the most popular application appears to be that of purging information from databases that might be used by fraudsters. It seems that our personal information is still largely governed by the law of the jungle. When that changes, we might find ourselves more eager to share our desires with the world.

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