Data selling: a quick look inside this growing web trend


Ever wonder how Facebook tailors ads to reflect your likes, purchases, and overall web habits? Initially, this phenomenon could be solely credited to the work of third party advertising networks and data aggregators. However, in more recent years, Facebook, Apple, and other major names in the tech and social media sectors have made more expansive personal data available for a price, a concept known as data selling. This process is considered convenient and interesting to some and unnerving and invasive to others.


Here is a quick look inside this growing trend, taking a look at how it works and is generally perceived.


What is data selling?


Data selling is, quite literally, the direct selling of personal data by a major web outlets to advertising companies. These companies then compile this data and extract user trends, habits, and recurring interests in an attempt to form ads targeting users at a more personal level. Many of these outlets already have a long history of selling data, garnered internally, from outlet-specific activity. However, the key distinction now is that many outlets have started selling data accrued in external browsing.


For example, in 2014, Facebook announced it would begin selling users’ browsing data directly to advertisers. In this case, a user with a recent history of searching for Sony televisions may suddenly see ads for Sony products on their Facebook newsfeed. This process may seem a bit predatory to some, though many outlets, like Facebook, generally implement it in an attempt to “provide ads that are more relevant to user interests.”


Is data selling safe?


Debates surrounding data selling typically boil down to a single question: is data selling safe in terms of user privacy? Keeping with the Facebook example, the selling process holds clear implications that the outlet is capable of absorbing and redistributing all user web activity, and perhaps a user may not want certain aspects of their external surfing available to an unknown audience, benign as this transfer may be in scope. Some believe that these outlets are taking advantage of potentially sensitive data in an attempt to make more money, all while allowing advertising companies to condition users into more purchasing.


At the same time, some have embraced the potential benefits of data sales, even taking the selling process into their own hands. The Datum app, for instance, allows users to “share or sell personal data on their own terms,” giving them the power to control who owns this data and make a profit it off it while remaining anonymous.


Given the polarizing status of data sales, and considering the concept’s potentially high ceiling as a brand new internet marketplace, expect to see it much more in tech headlines in the coming years.