Streaming sites have seen record-setting viewing numbers since the onset of the coronavirus forced millions into their homes. Streaming growth over the past five years has helped to supercharge a lucrative industry dedicated to collecting as much information as possible on viewers and their habits. Los Angeles-based startup Streamlytics is now trying to get users in on the game by securing a sliver of the money made from the sale of their data.

“Our thesis here is that many companies make a ton of money off your data and that creates more value for the organization in the markets and elsewhere, so using that as a baseline for valuation of the personal data that supports and drives many of these organizations makes the most sense,” said Angela Benton, CEO of Streamlytics.

“Our goal for Streamlytics as a whole is to help democratize the access to consumer data for consumers themselves but also for companies who want to use it.”

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There are multiple companies that can pay people in exchange for data pulled from a variety of platforms they use, but Benton explained that Streamlytics is different because you aren’t “opting in to being tracked.”

The company is looking to get data into the hands of users so they can make the choice of what to do with it. Streamlytics has users opt-in to share their streaming data across platforms and compensates them for sharing their data.

The first question everyone asks about these services—namely how much money they can make—often gets a coy answer in response because companies are worried about opening the lid and revealing how they calculate the value of a person’s data.

But experts have a variety of views on the price your data should cost. The chairman of economic advisory firm Sonecon, Robert Shapiro, published a study on the topic and told The New York Times last year that in 2018, “an average American’s data was worth about $240, or $20 a month, to big tech companies, data brokers and other firms.”

Sen. Mark Warner told Axios it should be about $5 each month. Other studies have pegged the figure somewhere between those two numbers but it fluctuates depending on the expert you speak to.

How it works

There are multiple ways to give Streamlytics your data but one of the main ones is to connect your streaming accounts through one of Streamlytics’ applications. Benton said users allow the platform to collect media consumption in three ways: A user’s existing streaming media consumption data across platforms, self-reported media consumption data, and passive media consumption data.

Benton said that when an API call or input request is made from either the Insights Pro dashboard or by direct access to the API, Streamlytics collects a wide range of anonymized data about the things you watch or listen to including artist, actress, genre, streaming platform, user activity, and more.

This information is cobbled together into a data license written by Streamlytics that details how users own the data on their media consumption habits and that they are being compensated for it.

The Streamlytics process is more cumbersome than the others, Benton said, because instead of just connecting your streaming account, many people try to get their data from streaming companies directly and upload the files to Streamlytics themselves as opposed to just allowing the company to watch or track you.

The process of getting your data from companies like Spotify or Netlfix is not as easy as it seems, so one of the first things Streamlytics did was create automated ways that they could submit requests for data on behalf of users.

The company now offers a streamlined way to request your data from all of these different services, allowing users to send demand letters to the privacy departments in the general council of a lot of these companies. Streamlytics can act as a proxy and do third party data requests for users, but as more companies like them emerge, larger streaming sites have had no choice but to make the process a bit simpler.

You can now upload CSV, JSON, HTML, and PDF file types of your data to the Streamlytics platform, which will be put through their patent-pending algorithm before they say how much it is worth.

Benton said the process was designed this way to address the very thorny issues around privacy that are inherent in any pay-for-data scheme. The company is honing in on collecting data for streaming markets because of concerns about all of the consumer and financial data that is already being collected on all of us at all times.

“We’re focused on the streaming market right now particularly because consumer data is a very personal thing. It really doesn’t make sense for people to try to get your financial data or any kind of other data, so we felt like your streaming data and data around that is less intrusive. The streaming wars happen to be in full swing right now. There’s no third party information around what people are streaming across platforms,” Benton said.

“Obviously, there’s Nielsen and other companies but they don’t do a deep dive on streaming, and that’s what we are able to do. Some of our customers are streaming services, like they’re relaunching their streaming service and they want to know more information about their super users. So they are going to use our data to help inform the business moving forward and their launch strategy as well as targeting strategy.”

Benton said that while critics of data payment schemes may be right in some ways, the push for monetization is happening in place of a robust US data privacy law that can actually give people true agency over their own data.

She is not able to reveal just yet how the algorithm calculates how much a person’s data is worth but said its a proprietary formula that looks at a public companies’ stock performance, including market capitalization, product performance, and “several other things.” Currently, there is no standardized term or way to calculate data value, so Streamlytics is developing what it calls a data point valuation, or DPV.

Based on how a company already performs and how much money they’ve made already off of consumer data, Streamlytics will calculate what they think your data’s value is.

“When a consumer uploads their data to one of our platforms, we scan it and count how many data points are in those files and then we multiply the number of data points by the valuation, the DPV,” she said.

“We don’t take a cut of it. What we do [after paying for your data] is we take all of the data files that are uploaded and we process it, we convert it into one data standard. This is our core technology, called the universal data interchange format, UDIF, which we feel and hope all companies will use once we expose that as an open source project.”

Expert concerns

There are multiple bills languishing in Congress that would force marketing companies and social media platforms to tell users how much they make from their data and create mechanisms for the collection to be stopped or for the profits to be shared.

The bills have received a fair amount of backlash from the data privacy community, which has expressed extreme opposition to any movements touting payment for data.

Experts are concerned about what payment schemes would do to what many say are already outrageous data collection policies that have been almost universally adopted at this point.

Jasmine McNealy, an attorney and an associate professor in the department of telecommunication at the University of Florida, listed off dozens of potential issues inherent in a platform like Streamlytics, namely that people take payment in exchange for allowing a company “to basically watch you or look at data about your affinities.”

“Would I use it? Personally, no. Never. I’m not a fan of the concept of data ownership because I think that property language and property frameworks for data are harmful, quite frankly. Data is something different. It’s not property, especially this kind of data which is all about the person,” McNealy said.

Professor and data privacy expert Chris Gilliard added that these companies were tacitly promoting the idea that privacy would only be available to those who can afford it.

It is now nearly impossible, Gilliard noted, to not have some data collected about you even if you went out of your way to avoid it. Private companies have countless ways to collect information on you just by virtue of collecting data on people you know or live with.

“Unless you’re really technically skilled or have some ability to live off the grid, most people in 2020 are having their data taken all day, every day in ways that most people can’t really meaningfully consent to,” Gilliard said.

“The idea of selling your data has the opportunity to exacerbate the divide when in a lot of cases, many of the things these companies are doing in extracting data from people are in my opinion things that shouldn’t be legal anyway.”

The class stratification of privacy would be the biggest downside to any popularization of platforms like Streamlytics, according to McNealy and Gilliard, who questioned how much money could truly be given to each person considering most companies sell data in aggregate.

“Rather than put the onus on individuals to try and figure out ways to maximize the value of a right that they should have, there should be more protections for individuals and for society as a whole in terms of what companies are allowed to do,” he said.

Daniel Castro, vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, echoed those concerns, saying most people’s data isn’t worth that much by itself. He said that in his view, consumers are not getting a bad deal when it comes to their data because unlike money, consumers do not have less data after sharing personal information, and they can share that same data with other services as well.

He added that “for most commercial services, consumers always come out ahead by sharing data in exchange for a free service.”

“There will likely be more digital tools in the future to help consumers manage their data, much like there are tools that let them manage their finances. Some of this may be about monetizing consumers data, others may be about giving them more control or helping them organize it. Different consumers are going to have different preferences,” Castro said.

“How many apps will the average consumer sign up for just to get back a few nickels a month? So there isn’t a big payoff here for these companies. Now there may be some exceptions. For example, data on a high-spending individual may be worth much more. That’s the reason higher-income people may get cash offers to sign up for credit cards or a few nights from someone selling a timeshare. We need federal privacy legislation that simplifies the rules for consumers.”

Streamlytics has released a number of consumer-facing applications that all revolve around the same general idea. Last month, it unveiled Clture, an effort to tailor the data monetization idea to African American audiences.

While it is still only focused on streaming data, the company has already received interest from companies that may want to pay a premium for Amazon order data files, which Benton said will open up new avenues in terms of paying consumers for their data but giving organizations a way to tailor what they sell in a “completely ethical way.”

“Data monetization becomes easier to do as data privacy laws change however your personal data privacy should be a basic human right for all people and treated equally. We feel there is a correlation between the value a company has in the public markets with the value of the consumer data it is built upon,” she said.

“The right, and ideal, thing to do is to have a law that recognizes the data you produce as your own. From there ecosystems can develop that allow consumers to choose how much data they want to share and with whom.”

The Clture app from Streamlytics.
Image: Streamlytics