Privacy Advisor

Creating a Data Empire (with Uncle Enzo and Steve Sneak)

June 1, 2013

By Sam Pfeifle
Publications Director

With gamification making its way further and further into mainstream marketing and corporate efforts, it only makes sense that privacy-awareness advocates would get into the game.

Privacy professionals should get a kick out of Data Dealer, a new browser-based game, which will eventually be integrated into Facebook like the popular Zynga games (et al) and takes a satirical and ironic approach to the world of data collection and sale. Currently, it’s only in demo stage, as developed by a non-profit team of coders based mainly in Vienna, Austria, but with collaborators in Germany, Switzerland and the U.S. It was originally released in German last fall, and has now been released in an English version in the past week.

With a self-described background as “open source advocates, web developers, theorists, historians, artists, activists, mathematicians, educators, punk rockers, noise musicians, designers and illustrators,” the team has created a very playable and thought-provoking game that illustrates the vast array of personally identifiable information companies can and do collect from varying sources and for varying monetization plans.

You can get a preview of how the game works here:

But, as a longtime gamer, this reporter thought he’d take a swing at actually playing the online demo. Here’s how that went:

Firstly, the game is very accessible as it’s currently constructed. Data Dealer worked seamlessly in Safari on a MacBook Pro over conference wireless at the hotel here at the IAPP Canada Privacy Symposium in Toronto (hey, there’s got to be something to do when the first staff meeting is at 5:45 a.m.).

You’re first presented with a “database,” which sort of looks like an ugly telephone (it’s meant to be a computer, I think), and since it’s a demo you find yourself mid-way through the game. Your goal is to get to eight million fully stocked personal profiles, and you sit at just over a million. I find myself with $5,000 in the bank, on “level 3,” and with zero percent risk.

Hmmm, what’s the risk do?

There are essentially three dynamics at play: You can buy data from shady sources; you can invest in online data collection practices like online dating sites and loyalty card programs; and then you can sell data to willing customers, such as the Central Security Agency. The gameplay works like lots of other click-farm kind of games: The more payoff is involved, the longer you have to wait for it.

PII that is easy to get: home addresses, first and last names, postal codes. PII that is harder to get: debt information, income, IP addresses, preferred computer games.

Time to dive in. First thing, I pay Steve Sneak for some data. $100. I have to wait 30 seconds for it. I wind up with info about tanning booth visits, plus some email addresses, etc. Then, I make a deal with Star Mart and sell them a bunch of info for $240; they want it for their human resources department, apparently. Now, I invest in a sweepstakes site and a dating site to get more data. It makes me wait about a minute. I collect and import about 12,000 new records. I need about 7,000,000 more. This could take a while. My risk factor is up to 26 percent already.

I sell some data to the central security agency for $460. They take a while, but they pay pretty well.

Now I start to go crazy. I invest in loyalty cards. In personality tests. I make it to level 5! I get three new sources of data. One is “Barnie Maddog,” who puts me in touch with new shady characters. Paul Peeves is a foreclosure artist. He’s selling some tasty data; I’m buying. Beverly Compton-Burr works at the department of education. She’s in over her head with her penthouse apartment and is willing to sell access to her database. I make a deal for data.

I get about 60,000 new profiles that way and some sweet identifiers: Relationship status. Chronic illnesses. Sexual orientation. Height. Diet. Political attitude. I sell to everyone. To the CSA, to the National Rental Housing Company, to the Health Insurance Company, to Star Mart again. I’m drunk with data. I make well over $1,200 and don’t spend nearly that much.

But my risk is up to 46 percent. I’m on level 6 without even really realizing it. I’m buying from Uncle Enzo, a decidedly shady character who mines the Internet; from the nurse again; from the sneak again.

Finally, boom! I run up against a privacy protest.

protest

I have to pay $1,200 for an image-rehabilitation campaign. A small group of advocates whack me in the figurative kneecaps. But I quickly collect $900 from my data sale and I barely notice the hit I take.

This would be where the cynicism comes in from the programmers. It doesn’t seem like I need to worry much about protestors and regulators. I’m running free. I’m trading data like baseball cards in 1987. After my image campaign, my risk goes all the way back down to 9, too. So, I feel mighty empowered. Uncle Enzo is the jackpot, by the way. Fifty thousand records at a time. For like $120. The Loyalty Cards are generally the most successful collection method, but the dating site gets me solid profile information, too.

Really, though, after about 20 minutes, I’m basically treading water. I’m just over $5k in assets. I’m still only at 1.5 million records. There’s a loooong way to go. And since this is a demo version, I can’t save my progress.

At level 8, I pick up some “age at first sexual encounter” data. What would I even use that for? Who cares? The CSA will buy it. I notice my payouts are starting to be much more substantial, more than $700 from each firm at times. Next time, I get $830 from the health insurance company!

Shockingly, the game keeps me occupied for almost half an hour - long enough that my butt sort of falls asleep in the chair. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a way to go out in a blaze of glory. I buy from all the shady characters I can. I sell like I’m on a used car lot. But all that happens is another measly protest and a $1,200 hit.

I switch it off. Time for a coffee and (fittingly) a pre-conference session on Big Data and privacy. I’m a little sad to see the game go, but I’m also kind of bored. I haven’t earned any new shady sources or willing buyers in a while.

Will this game be successful in a Facebook environment? Possibly. As click-games go, this is sort of fun. The graphics are entertaining and amusing and it’s fun to watch the data flow from the shady characters to the database and then from the database to the companies who are looking to buy. But there will need to be more incentives in order to keep people hooked for long.

Will this game be successful in educating people about how data is used? Almost definitely. Playing forces you to think about all the data being collected about you on the Internet and who’s collecting what. Do most people think of loyalty cards as a data collection scheme? I don’t think so. If they play this game, though, they will. Do people see online dating sites as collection farms? I doubt it. They think they’re getting something for paying a small fee to create a profile. They likely don’t realize that the data they enter will be sold off to create another revenue stream entirely for their favorite hook-up site.

This makes the commerce of data playfully obvious. I’d recommend giving it a spin yourself, but also promoting it through your organization as a way to drive home the value of data and how people are looking to use it. Perhaps that will help emphasize the necessity of privacy and security controls.

But watch out: It could also harm your company’s productivity…


Read More By Sam Pfeifle:
What Went Wrong at Bloomberg, and Where Do They Go Now?
The Impact of SP 800-53: Putting Privacy and Security Side-By-Side
Will the White House Soon Have A Chief Privacy Officer or Not?
The BYOD Dilemma: What’s Yours and What’s Theirs?