You can trade your personal data for a cup of coffee. Should you?

Patrick Devaney


It can be hard to understand the value of something that you can’t hold in your hand or see. Our personal data is a prime example of this. We hand it over to access online services without giving a second’s thought to what it is actually worth.

To make the matter even more complicated, the online services themselves are not something we can touch either. We trade our data for access instead of ownership. This makes it even harder to comprehend what we are giving up because we can’t really understand what we are getting in return. Do you think you’d have a better understanding of what your personal data was worth, if you received something physical in exchange for it? Let’s find out.

An international chain of coffee shops called Shiru Café will give you a cup of coffee in exchange for your personal data

How much is your private data worth to you?

Shiru Café has one branch near Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island and is opening new coffee shops near Harvard, Yale, and Princeton as well as Amherst College.

The way the Shiru system works is students offer information like their name, email, college, major, year in school, and professional interests in exchange for a coffee. This information is then used by the corporate brands, that pay for the running of the coffee shop, to target students that might be suitable for positions they’re looking to fill.

We give over this type of information all the time in exchange for access to services like Facebook and Gmail but exchanging it for something as tangible as a cup of coffee creates a new way of looking what our data is actually worth. Although Shiru claims its business model is a new and advanced way of monetizing your personal data, it is still a basic system.

In essence, all they’ve done is offer a basic incentive for putting some advanced personal data down onto an advanced recruiters mailing list. This reality is borne out by the fact that Shiru expects upwards of 75% of all Brown students will have registered with the Brown University branch of Shiru by the end of the semester.

The model would be much more interesting and enlightening if students were able to haggle. I’ll let you know my major if you throw in a Danish with my coffee. Much more could be learned then about how people see their data and how much they think it is worth. Either that, or you would just get a long line of poor and hungry students trying to peddle their personal data for a few bites of an artisanal panini.

The fact is that trading your personal data for a cup of coffee isn’t going to give you a better understanding what it is worth. On a cold Monday morning, however, it will give you a very clear understanding that it is worth something. Considering we give our data away all the time, often without knowing it, any initiative that makes us understand the situation a little better should be seen as positive.

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