by Craig Hannabus (@crayg) There’s been much talk lately regarding data being a currency. It’s a concept that seems sound but I’d like to challenge it.

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What is currency?

Currency is an agreed upon value exchange. Historically, before we had currency, we traded. If I had something you wanted and you had something I wanted, we’d make a trade and then we’d both be happy. As trading progressed, we’d start to agree on base-line values. For example, maybe the thing that I want is worth two of the things you want. I’d have to pony up the additional item to get your item. As long as we both agreed, it’s still a fair trade.

With the advent of agriculture, trade became a more complex. A farmer might have something I want (food) but I might not have something he wants (some stones I found by the river). Currency is born. I trade my stones to an eclectic sculptor for a few coins. I can now use my newly acquired coins to buy food from the farmer. We can agree that currency has real-world worth, either in goods or services.

What is a service worth?

This is where things get confusing for me. If data is a currency, what’s it worth? The agreed-upon exchange that we have with platforms such as Google and Facebook is that data is worth the service they provide. Is it really, though? In 2012, Google made over US$100m a day on AdWords alone! I’m beginning to wonder if my data is worth much more than just an email address and a browser.

The term “data” itself is a bit of a misnomer. Data describes information, records and datasets. It’s cold, it’s impersonal, and it feels harmless. But what if we stopped calling it data? What if we started calling it privacy? It sounds different when you say that you’re exchanging your privacy for a service, doesn’t it? Privacy feels more personal, more valuable.

When the privacy law came into being 130 years ago, it was called “the most comprehensive of rights, and the right most valued by civilized men” by American lawyer and associate justice, Louis Brandeis (one of the original authors of the law).


This puts us in a predicament. We’re sitting with something that is clearly very valuable. Yet we’re also caught in a situation where the services we’re provided with have become an integral part of our lives. Does that mean that, over time, those services have gained value? Yes, they have. The more we’ve used the services, the more valuable they’ve become. Why is that? Because we’re putting our valuable thing (our privacy) into the service. Social networks are nothing without your shared, private data.

Going back to our earlier trade analogy, what’s happening is that I’ve something you want (a service) and you’ve something I want (your privacy). The thing is, I’ve lied. I haven’t told you that I want your privacy. I’ve just offered you something ‘free of charge’. The service I’m offering is absolutely worthless, so it’s right that you should get it for nothing. However, the moment you start using it, its value increases exponentially. I’ve given you a worthless free service but you’ve given me your very valuable data. Do you feel like a sucker yet?

Fortunately, lawmakers are on our side and they’re trying to help us. There have been many privacy scandals on many fronts. Most of these privacy infringements involve Google and the GDPR (EU’s equivalent of our POPI Act), resulting in hefty, billion-dollar fines.

Is it enough?

Yet is it enough? The real question still remains unanswered. If data were traded on the stock market, how much would it be worth in real currency? We don’t know. Calling data a currency doesn’t seem like it’s very accurate. Until we agree upon its worth, let’s just call it what it is: our privacy.

See also


Craig HannabusCurrently the strategic director at Rogerwilco, Craig Hannabus (@crayg) has spent his adult life in the tech and marketing industry, exploring both development and content creation. He’s has worked on brands including Standard Bank, Nedbank, General Motors, Nestle, and Caxton. His regular MarkLives column, “#CustomerFirst“, explores the world of customer experience, a long-time interest of his.

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