There’s a saying that data is the new oil(new window) because of how valuable it is to the digital economy. But what’s the value of your data, personally? Depending where you live, information about you could be worth at least several hundred dollars a year to Facebook and Google alone.
For someone living in the United States, your data generated over $600 in revenue for just those two companies last year, according to our analysis of their regulatory filings. (We explain how we reached this number below.)
That doesn’t include the income you generate for other ad tech companies, data brokers, internet service providers, dark web marketplaces, and any number of other entities that leach profit out of your behaviors and attributes.
This is the price you pay for supposedly “free” services. But the bigger problem is that there’s not much protecting you from Big Tech’s incentives to grab as much data as they can, even if it’s without your consent. They’re motivated to violate your privacy and even ignore the privacy laws on the books. They will happily pay any fine(new window) as long as they can continue to exploit you. Once they have your data, you can’t control what happens to it and it could even be exposed in a data breach.
When you consider how lucrative your data is, it’s easy to see why Big Tech tramples on your privacy at all costs.
The price tag on your data
One of the reasons it’s so easy to give away your data is that it’s so difficult to understand its value. That’s partly because the companies profiting off you want you to believe their services are “free”. In reality, you pay for free services with the intimate details of your life.
But what are you actually paying? We decided to try to figure out the price in dollars.
The best place to start is with the two companies that make the most money from data: Alphabet and Meta. Specifically, we looked at Google and Facebook, the flagship products of these companies.
How much your data is worth to Facebook
Facebook’s numbers were easy to calculate because they disclosed them in the company’s earnings presentation for the third quarter of 2023(new window).
For users in the United States and Canada, the average annual revenue per user was $217.26. (Over 99%(new window) of Facebook revenue comes from advertising.)
In Europe, the annual revenue per user is about $70. Globally it was $42.34. Meta says the sharp disparity between the US and Canada and the rest of the world is “primarily due to the size and maturity of those online and mobile advertising markets”. Interestingly, Facebook recently offered EU users the ability to pay €9.99/month in order to not see ads, placing the value of each person a bit higher than current revenue. (There’s no privacy benefit, however, as Facebook will still collect your data(new window), even if you opt for the ad-free tier.)
These revenue figures don’t include Instagram, WhatsApp, and other platforms, which had 3.74 billion monthly active users(new window) as of December 2022. The company doesn’t break out average revenue for its “family of apps” by geographic region, so it’s difficult to know the relative value of people’s data across Meta.
How much your data is worth to Google
It’s a little harder to quantify the per capita spoils of Google’s sprawling ad machine. The company doesn’t disclose exact figures on how many people use its various services where ads are displayed. But it’s possible to get a rough approximation by looking at Google Search, which has the largest market share of perhaps any product in the world.
There are an estimated 5.3 billion people(new window) online, and about 90% of them(new window) use Google Search. Google reported(new window) $224.47 billion in ad revenue in 2022 (not including YouTube ads). So that comes out to about $47 per year per person globally.
But just like Meta, there’s a geographic disparity with Google’s revenue, too. In 2022, 48% of Google’s total revenue came from the United States. If we assume this proportion holds for ad revenue (it’s not clear whether it does), then US advertisers paid Google $107.75 billion in 2022.
If Google Search market share is also 90% in the US, that’s over 274 million people using Google, and the company earns $393 per year from each of them.
Other ways to value your data
That’s already hundreds of dollars per year, just from two companies. But we’re also collectively paying in the tens of billions of dollars to other companies profiting off ads. Amazon reported almost $38 billion(new window) in ad revenue in 2022, Apple generated $4.7 billion(new window), and Microsoft earned $12 billion(new window).
And that’s just the Big Tech giants. Companies like Spotify, Twitter, Snap, and others also make money from targeted ads.
Your data is also bought and sold in far less obvious ways. Internet service providers like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon collect your data and surreptitiously use it to sell advertising and analytics services, according to the FTC(new window). And even your car(new window) and grocery store(new window) are watching you.
And then there’s the black market, where hackers steal and sell data on the dark web. The advocacy group Privacy Affairs(new window) found that the average price paid for a single stolen credit card is $110. Bank account login details, passports, and cryptocurrency accounts can run into the thousands. Apart from the market price is the cost to you of identity theft and financial losses.
It’s important to take in all factors when considering the price of your data. In some cases, such as your Social Security number or passport, you might even consider the data to be priceless.
There’s no need to give away your data
Big Tech has been telling the same story for a decade: that your privacy is a fair price to pay for online services. But after successive scandals, data breaches, and even violations of children’s privacy(new window), people have begun to question this premise.
Our recent survey in partnership with YouGov(new window) found that most people believe it’s unethical for Big Tech to profit off their personal information, and they don’t believe they’ve had the opportunity to give informed consent. “Over two-thirds of people don’t understand how online services use their data,” we found.
Given the stakes — hundreds of dollars per year per person from billions of users — it’s no surprise Big Tech is willing to break laws (according to European regulators(new window)) to maintain their dominance.
Our position at Proton has always been that privacy should be the default. And while strong privacy laws are important, the most effective way to protect your data from abuse is to use online services with end-to-end encryption(new window).
Unlike Google, which can see everything you do online, encrypted services can’t access any of your private data. For example, when you use Google Drive, the company can see all the files, pictures, and documents you store in the cloud. With Proton Drive(new window), your data is encrypted on your computer or mobile device before going to our servers, and only you can decrypt it with your secret key. We never see it.
There are numerous benefits of keeping control of your data and not giving it away to Big Tech companies for free. Privacy and security are fundamental values that should not be given away. Additionally, using end-to-end encryption helps protect your data from hackers because even if the cloud servers are breached, your files remain encrypted.
Most importantly, in the digital age your online data is synonymous with your identity. Consider the ways in which your personal email is tied to everything you do online, like a digital passport(new window). When you use Google or Facebook, you are giving them the right to control the fabric of your identity, sell it to third-parties, or auction it off to corporations and politicians trying to manipulate you.
Fortunately, it’s now extremely easy to opt out of Big Tech and switch to a privacy-first service. At Proton, we offer Easy Switch which lets you transfer your emails, contacts, and calendar events with a couple of clicks.
Considering the $600 in value Big Tech is extracting from you, a Proton subscription is cheap by comparison — particularly since we never do anything with your data and it’s safe from costly data breaches.
Big Tech knows how valuable your data is, so they try to take it from you. We also understand your data is valuable, which is why we think you should keep it safe with strong encryption.