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That Data Is So You

Can managing personal data, like managing personal finance, ever take off?

Illustration: Mark Smith

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Every marketer knows that consumer data can fetch a good price. But an emerging class of companies and services is offering tools that return to people control of their own online information. In some cases, they even plan to let users exchange their data for better deals and services.

“It’s all about transparency and control,” says Shane Green, president and CEO of personal identification management site Personal. “We believe the more people have that ability to aggregate data and set permissions on who gets it, the more they’re going to be willing to share data with companies and marketers that can deliver real value for them.”

Launched in private beta this year, Personal gives users so-called “private data vaults” to let them store a range of information from social networking activity to credit card transactions to travel itineraries and more. Much like the financial management site Mint.com, once users provide the credentials for different online services, Personal imports a copy of the data.

The site organizes the data in category-specific, encrypted “gems,” which let people easily search their own information or grant permission to share it with others. For example, a user could privately share recent baby-related purchases with a sister or ask a friend for a dogsitter’s phone number. Eventually, he says, Personal could serve as a marketplace that lets consumers and marketers trade data for a wide variety of deals.

Another startup, Singly, takes a slightly different approach with its Locker Project. Instead of offering a full data management service, it’s creating an open-source platform of secure digital data lockers. Co-founder Jason Cavnar says the plan is for third-party developers to build on the platform with applications designed to help people use their data more effectively. For example, apps could pull all social networking and email contacts into one list or combine all geotagged photos, transactions, and check-ins into a quick reference of a recent trip.

Even big companies like credit-reporting giant Experian are moving in the same direction. In May, Experian bought myID.com, an identity management tool that helps users monitor their digital footprint and build an online profile of their private data.

But for consumers—already dizzy with too many digital accounts—will this be just one more modern-day hassle? Or, could it someday be as mainstream as managing a bank account is now?

Forrester analyst Fatemeh Khatibloo says that while the technology may be there, the companies will still have to show consumers that it’s worth their time and their trust. But, given the amount of data consumers are leaving in their wake, the privacy breaches in recent years, and a growing sense among consumers that their data is being mismanaged, the personal data management industry could get a lift.

“I think that convergence has made consumers sit up and take notice,” she says.