A server room.

What with all the stories about data harvesting by large companies, you may have wondered what’s actually in it for them. Let’s take a look at what your data’s worth—and why so many companies are doing whatever it takes to get their hands on it.

What Is Your Data?

Before we start talking about what things are worth, it may be wise that we first determine what we’re talking about. After all, the word “data” is a pretty intangible term at the best of times, so when we talk about yours, what do we mean?

Well, the answer may change a little depending on who you ask, but we’ll broadly be speaking about what most people would call personal data. This can be your name, your address, your email address, even your IP address; anything that can locate you.

Beyond that, other important data points are your age, your ethnicity, your nationality, your sex, your gender, the list goes on. Of course, it doesn’t end there, also interesting are your income, your education level, and a whole number of related stats that make you, you—on paper, at least.

What Is Your Data Used For?

All these data points together can be used to make a profile of you, and this profile is worth money to advertisers so they can target ads. After all, they don’t want to hawk tampons to someone who doesn’t use them, nor to advertise an American pickup truck to an apartment dweller in central Paris. It’s all about getting the right ads to the right people.

It’s important to understand this: when people talk about how we need to protect our data and debate legislation to protect our privacy, that’s generally about protecting people from marketers. Government surveillance is very much a real thing, but advertising executives might be a more immediate and pressing threat to our privacy.

The advertising and marketing industry is massive: two of the biggest companies in the world, Meta—which owns Facebook— and Alphabet—in particular its Google search engine—are in the business of selling ad space on their platforms and they are raking the money in.

Meta reported revenue of over $100 billion in 2021, while Alphabet reported over $250 billion. That’s a crazy amount of money, and in the case of Google over 80 percent of that is driven by ads, according to Yahoo! News. For Meta, it’s a little harder to place, but we can expect the numbers to be in the same neighborhood.

How Is Your Data Gathered?

Clearly, there’s a lot at stake when collecting data. Luckily for these companies, there are a lot of ways to gather it, especially since we volunteer much of it ourselves. For example, people give away a lot of data when signing up to many of the free services advertised across the internet. Though not every single one will use the data you give them to advertisers, many of them will.

The biggest offenders here are Facebook and Google, both of which seem to gather just about everything you do on their platform and beyond. Google has been caught recording location data more than once, for example, and Meta will likely use facial recognition tech in its virtual-reality Metaverse—and has used it in the past on Facebook.

Another potent way to gather data is through your browsing behavior, which is usually monitored by browsing cookies. This includes what you click on, what you ignore, what you like or dislike, how much time you spend on which sites, and more details. In fact, all this information is a data set all by itself, as are the specifications of your computer, which can be gathered through browser fingerprinting.

What Is Your Data Worth?

Now that you have an idea what exactly is on sale, let’s see what it’s worth to these advertising companies. It would be nice to get a hard answer, but it seems that nobody seems to really know exactly what one person’s data is worth—and none of the advertisers are telling. As such, even the most well-informed sources need to employ some guesswork when determining what data is worth.

Probably the most data-driven study is one done in 2020 by MacKeeper in conjunction with YouGov, which gives a very nuanced answer to what data is worth. According to the study, men’s data is worth a little more than women’s, and Black and Middle Eastern people’s data is worth more than that of white people.

The data in the MacKeeper study is solid, but it focuses mostly on what companies are paying for advertising data in the U.S. and UK per ethic and gender segment and then dividing that by the number of people in each segment. This calculator from the Financial Times does more or less the same thing in case you want to see your data’s value, though note that it’s from 2013.

Dividing the Spoils

However, there are other ways to calculate what our data is worth to these companies, namely by looking at their value and then calculating our share of that. For example, a Financial Times journalist figures that our data is worth $26 per person when you divide Facebook’s sales by the number of people that use it. You could also calculate it based on Facebook’s market value divided by its numbers of users, in which case our data is worth roughly $200 per person.

Not too shabby, but it could be even more: Web3 app Tapmydata claims it could be as much as $3000 per person. It gets to this figure by taking Facebook’s market cap and then dividing it by monthly active users. However much it is exactly, it’s a whole lot more than most people think, and we’re giving it away for free.

How to Protect Yourself

If you’d like to deny these advertisers the money earned from your data, the best way to do so is to not play their game. Don’t have a Facebook or Google account, use DuckDuckGo to search the web rather than Google, and don’t sign on to just any service.

Of course, in this world, it’s hard to be completely disconnected: many people use social media simply to stay in touch with friends. Google Workspace is used by companies the world over and you need an account to use it.

Still, though, there are things you can do: for one, use incognito mode more, as it signs you out of any account that may track you. Secondly, you want to sign up for fewer online services, especially free ones. Lastly, content blockers may block tracking scripts. For example, Firefox has “enhanced tracking protection” built-in, Microsoft Edge has “tracking prevention,” and Safari has “intelligent tracking prevention.”

All that said, though, tracking is a fact of digital life, so it’s best to learn to accept that there will be a certain amount of it going on, like it or not. The only way to truly stop it is to switch off the computer and never turn it on again.

Profile Photo for Fergus O'Sullivan Fergus O'Sullivan
Fergus is a freelance writer for How-To Geek. He has seven years of tech reporting and reviewing under his belt for a number of publications, including GameCrate and Cloudwards. He's written more articles and reviews about cybersecurity and cloud-based software than he can keep track of---and knows his way around Linux and hardware, too.
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