Selling Data: Everyone’s Business?

How long until we’re selling everything we see?

Rob Leathern
3 min readJul 13, 2013


It’s July 2013. Google Glass is out in the wild in limited fashion,but already creating controversy. Nokia just launched its Lumia 1020 phone with a 41-megapixel camera. Storms or other disasters, shootings, or fights are increasingly captured on phones’ ubiquitous HD video by amateurs, some of whom try to sell the footage to news outlets or simply post them to YouTube for all to see. This is mostly “active” video sharing or selling - capturing something interesting and then trying to trade or sell it. What we’re going to see more of in the next few years is systems or services aimed at capturing large amounts of data along with meta-data passively, for sale later on.

Services already exist where you can buy images and location data of cars based on license plates (the ultimate unique identifier - a great reason NOT to have a personalized license plate) from brokers like MVTRAC or TLO. The current scale of these passive data collectors may be minor compared to what might occur in the future, though.

Jigsaw was an innovative passive data company which acquired in 2010 for $142 million. You would share your contact data in exchange for getting more. You were selling the list of contact information you had for business people you had met and scanned or typed in, and then in return you got others’ contact details at companies you wanted to reach out to - a salesperson’s dream! Some people felt it was slimy, that the data wasn’t yours to sell, but it was clever and was an early invitation to the future of crowdsourced data.

In Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel “Snow Crash”, Hiro Protagonist (yes, exactly!) makes money uploading data to the CIC’s (formerly the CIA) central servers. He looks for what he thinks could be interesting collections of information to sell, and if the now-for-profit Feds end up using it, he gets a payday.

A recent simple example: the ATM camera and store security camera videos in downtown Boston that captured footage of random passers-by on April 15, 2013 captured information that only became valuable later on, after bombs went off and the authorities were looking for suspects.

With the right meta-data (like location and time, for example) a wide array of information may become valuable later on, and not just for law enforcement. Many of the devices to capture this information already exist, and the first generation of services built around crowdsourced collection at scale have focused on letting users trade certain narrowly-defined types of information, like Waze for traffic (now part of Google) or share location data and photos mostly to narrow groups of friends like Foursquare. But this is just the beginning, and the next phase will entail broader, less-specific and more ubiquitous data collection. We’ll see interfaces that allow the purchase, tracking/attribution and sale of this information. The buyers and sellers of this information could be any number of entities and the data will be video, audio, photos, and various other types of information. Quality will be attributed to sources based on accuracy and other cleverness. The limits of not only our legal system, but also our commerce channels, will be tested.

We would do well to not just focus our attention on the obvious privacy and tracking issues exposed via the NSA-PRISM-Snowden communications affair, but to start to consider what will become a growing issue - that of us spying on each other. And getting paid for it.



Rob Leathern

Entrepreneur and product leader, prev at Google and Facebook: security, privacy, ads & integrity