The details of what we all see online are an incredibly valuable resource.
This tracked data helps the likes of Google and Facebook earn billions and billions of dollars a year in ad revenue, as they use the information to target ads at us.
For example, if you’re browsing online fashion retailers to potentially buy a new pair of jeans, you should very soon see ads for denim trousers elsewhere on your computer screen. We have all seen this happen with respect to whatever we were thinking of buying.
The level to which we are being tracked online like this is somewhat disturbing. According to a recent study, the average European has data about their internet usage shared 376 times a day. For US surfers this almost doubles to a 747.
But what if you could not only have more control over how much of your data is shared, but actually make money from it?
That promise comes from a Canadian tech firm called Surf, which launched a browser extension of the same name last year. It rewards people for surfing the internet.
Still in its beta or limited release phase, it works by bypassing the likes of Google, and instead sells your data directly to retail brands. In return Surf gives you points that can be saved and then redeemed for shop gift cards and discounts.
Firms signed up so far include Foot Locker, The Body Shop, Crocs and Dyson.
Surf points out that all data is anonymous – your email addresses and telephone numbers are not shared, and you are not required to give your name when signing up. Although it asks for your age, gender and approximate address, these are not mandatory.
The idea is that brands can use the data that Surf provides to, for example, see which are the most popular websites among 18- to 24-year-old men in Los Angeles. You can then target your ads accordingly.
Surf hasn’t released details of how much people can earn, but so far it says it has enabled users to collectively earn more than $97,000 (£77,000).
People can also use Surf to limit the data they share, such as blocking information about certain websites they visit.
One Surf user is York University student Amina Al-Noor, who says she feels the extension has given her “control back” over her online data.
“You can choose what you want to give to the surf,” says the 21-year-old. “And other times I forget I have it, and a week later I’ll check, and my points keep going up.
“All tech companies are going to collect our information, but the point is to use technology to improve our experiences, right,” says the 21-year-old.
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Swish Goswami, founder and CEO of Surf, says the firm wants to be “the frequent flyer prize of Internet browsing”.
He continued: “From day one we share and do not share with users, and we also give them the ability to control their data.
“I think if you’re up front with people, and telling them that you’re sharing data with brands, and you’re doing it in an anonymous way – that is, it can’t be traced back to them because we have They don’t have a first or last name, then people are more comfortable saying ‘yes’ and sharing more with us.”
Surf is part of a growing movement that some commentators have dubbed “responsible technology,” part of which is to give people more control over their data.
Another tech firm in this area is fellow Canadian start-up Waverly, which allows people to compile their own news feeds instead of relying on the tracker and ad-based algorithms of Google News and Apple News.
With Waverly, you fill in the topics you’re interested in, and its AI software finds the articles it thinks you might want to read. The Montreal-based firm is the brainchild of founder Philippe Beaudoin who was formerly a Google engineer.
Users of the app can regularly change their preferences and send them feedback on which articles are being recommended.
Mr Beaudoin says it takes a little effort for users to tell the app the stuff they’re interested in, but in return they are freed from “falling into the trap of ads”.
“Responsible technology should empower users, but they also shouldn’t be shy about asking them to do some work on their behalf,” he says.
,[In return] Our AI reads thousands of articles a day, and puts them in an index [for users],
Rob Schavel’s US firm Abine, makes two apps that enable the user to enhance their privacy – Blur and Delete Me. The first ensures that your passwords and payment details cannot be tracked, while the latter removes your personal information from search engines.
Mr Chawell says he is of the view that surfing the Internet should be “privacy by design”.
Carissa Veliz, an associate professor at Oxford University’s Institute for Ethics in AI, says tech firms “need to be encouraged to develop business models that do not rely on the exploitation of personal data”.
“It is worrying that most of the algorithms that are ruling our lives are being produced by private companies without any kind of supervision or guidance to ensure that those algorithms support our public goods and values. Huh.”
“I don’t think transparency is the panacea, or even half of the solution, but policymakers in particular should have access to algorithms.”
Google points to its new “Privacy Sandbox” initiative, which aims to “offer new, more personal advertising solutions.”
A Google spokesperson says: “That’s why we’re collaborating with regulators and the web community through the Privacy Sandbox to build technology that protects people’s privacy while helping to keep online content and services free for all.” Will protect online.
“Later this year, we’ll launch My Ads Center, which expands our privacy controls to give people more direct control over the information used to show ads.”