In February, Facebook purchased the WhatsApp messaging service for the mind-boggling sum of $19 billion. It was the largest acquisition of a venture-backed company ever, but it also proved a clear, albeit subtle, point: Our relationship to personal data is shifting. WhatsApp charges users $0.99 a year, a fee it justifies in a straightforward way—no ads, no data mining, no kidding. Now that one of the world’s most prolific data miners owns WhatsApp, we’ll see if the service can continue to guard privacy in the same way. Regardless, the lesson stands. People are realizing just how much their data is worth.
Paying for privacy used to be common. Any letter sent via the U.S. Postal Service comes with an implicit security guarantee: Opening someone else’s mail can be a federal offense. Even in the early days of email, an Internet service provider, be it AOL or a local ISP, wouldn’t share customer data without a court order. But then free services arrived—Hotmail and Yahoo in the nineties, then Gmail, Twitter, and others. These companies still make money; they just do so differently. Part of their strategy is to make customers the product and extract value from the content they create or the information they leave behind.
Companies extract value from the content customers create or the information they leave behind.
Much of this is obvious and expected. Gmail, for example, provides contextual ads based on what’s in your email. Other schemes are decidedly less benign: Insurance companies monitor online activity for possible fraud and risky behavior. And some are downright intrusive: A couple of years ago, Target reportedly figured out a teen was pregnant and sent coupons for cribs and baby clothes to her family home, betraying a secret withheld from her parents.
Almost every time your computer touches the Internet, it’s a safe bet your movements and actions are tracked, recorded, and added to a profile. If you have any doubt, head to disconnect.me and install its snitch-exposing browser extension. It will display the many trackers that follow you as you visit Web pages. (If you care about such a service continuing to exist, toss a few bucks into its tip jar.)
There’s a backlash brewing. A 2009 study from the Annenberg School for Communication showed that a majority of American adults are creeped out by ads that are too closely tailored to their interests. Meanwhile, the European Union Agency for Network and Information Security found in a separate study that 93 percent of people want to know if a business protects their privacy; 31 percent were willing to pay for added protection.
WhatsApp is not the only company to take advantage of our growing desire for privacy. The app Wicker encrypts and then destroys messages sent through its system. The basic version is free, but the company will charge for premium services. Silent Circle, founded by email-encryption pioneer Phil Zimmerman, encrypts texts, phone calls, and file transfers from mobile devices; it costs $10 a month. As insurance companies, marketers, and spammers become bolder about using our data, our demand for privacy will inevitably increase. More services will crop up to fill the void, creating a new Web that will hide you—and your data—behind a paywall.
This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Popular Science_._