We live in the information age, an era when just about everyone should recognize the value of data. But most people don't. They are unaware that personal information has a worth on which a price tag can be put. These days, when just about everything is measured in dollar terms, concern with a concept as difficult to quantify-or even define-as privacy may seem quaint. Just as companies, or even employees, have come to have no value except what the stock market says they're worth, why not handle that old-fashioned concept of privacy the same way? Although some may quibble about who owns information about a person, it seems clear that data about one's income, spending habits and assets belong to that individual.That's why, given the cold calculus of today's market imperatives, it no longer makes sense to think of privacy as a moral or ethical issue. To square with the prevailing school of thought, the controversy should turn to the marketplace for its solution. Under such an approach, each person should put a price tag on his or her personal information. Jane Smith may decide that she likes getting a lot of junk mail and junk phone calls, and she would set only a token price, if any, on her personal data.On the other hand, John Doe may detest getting junk mail and junk phone calls, and is not eager to let the world know anything about his finances or demographics. But, for the right price, say, $1 million, he might let his bank disclose how much he has in his checking account.The idea may sound bizarre, but it accords nicely with modern thinking. And some think-tank types have come up with a similar idea. John Hagel III, former leader of McKinsey & Co.'s electronic practice, and Marc Singer, who is still with McKinsey, have come up with the idea of "infomediaries." In their book, Net Worth, published by Harvard Business School Press, the two propose that consumers hire infomediaries as agents to sell their personal information.It would be a great business for banks, which are naturals for the job-they already stockpile customer information, from savings and checking accounts, to loans and mortgages and to credit card purchases. What's more, banks have always been intermediaries. Now, with the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, the business doesn't even have to be related to banking (which it is). It also would solve banks' moral dilemma (if such issues exist any more). Acting as agent for the sale of personal information would make banks partners with their customers rather than pilferers of the minutiae of their lives.And just think, dissemination of such information doesn't have to stop with financial data. Banks could gather up and sell information about what people buy at the supermarket, what they purchase online, what trips they take and what books and movies they buy.The infomediary could send forms to each client asking him or her how much should be charged for each bit of information-so much for the amount in a savings account or CD, and so much to disclose whether the customer likes pornography and what kind.It's a perfect solution. It would be a new profit center for banks, and everyone would gain.
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