“I never believed that making a living could be this easy,” says Chiara Nilsson, sipping her Aperitivo and taking in the late winter Sicilian sun.
We’re sat in beautiful Bivona, a rural town in Sicily that is one of the communes selling old houses requiring renovations for a nominal one euro fee in Italy. Chiara, 35, moved with her partner to the Sicilian town from Stockholm in 2022. Now, they finance their lifestyle by providing big companies with access to their personal data through polypoly. She discovered the value of personal data while working as an Account Executive for a big adtech firm, which praised itself on its ability to hyper-target anyone on a publisher’s website, using a simultaneous display of surveys, advertisements, recommended articles, and pop-ups. They also claimed to be able to track what content users share in their private messages using a new type of cookie — also known as the ‘Crumb’. “By placing Crumbs on the websites of our publisher customers, we were able to accurately replicate the private social networks of users by overlaying data points. For example, we could differentiate between a user, let’s call her Jane, and her family and friends, based solely on the frequency of articles she shares, and the content of these articles,” explained Chiara. “Combine that with a couple of readily available data points from social media, and we could accurately map out Jane’s real network — their interests, locations, and demographic details.
“Then I had this moment one day, when I looked in the mirror and felt disgusted with how I was making a living, and the world order I was participating in,” she added. “I decided that there must be a better way.” Chiara quit her job in late 2019, and began looking for companies who were protecting personal online data.
Personal data is expensive
While doing research, she came across polypoly— a co-operative founded in Berlin. After Chiara copied the information from her social media accounts, insurance providers, banks, and government profiles to her personal polyPod, she truly understood how much access companies had to her data before — and its true economic value.
“It was when I got the first algorithmic query from polypoly which asked if I wanted to answer a question, and explained exactly where my data was going, that I really fell in love with it,” she says. “Then, the payments started coming in, and I was shocked at how much companies were willing to pay for the data I provided to them. My first cheque was for 5000 euros!”
Paid for by personal information
While the couple don’t live a lavish lifestyle, they can comfortably live within their means, with most of their income coming from the data they sell. And they can afford the yearly trip back to Sweden to visit their families and friends. We’re financing most of the renovations for the house, along with our yearly living costs, by allowing companies to access our personal data for marketing and advertising purposes,” she says. “I didn’t understand how much money was being takenby companies without my knowledge before working in the adtech industry, and am so happy to be able to profit off of my own data now.” On the side, the two are learning Italian, starting a co-operative garden for the community, and are looking into opening a Sicilian slow food concept destination through a combined olive oil and winery complex, for business retreats. “We believe bringing more international visitors will really revitalise the commune of Bivona,” she says.
More than pocket change for everyone
“Chiara and her partner are power users of the internet, and have a large and diverse data set, so it is particularly valuable,” says Thorsten Dittmar, Founder and CEO of polypoly.
“Though Chiara’s situation is not the norm for most polypoly users, we believe that the average user would be able to make 150 euros per month in extra income off of their data.” That’s an extra 1800 euros for the average internet user each year. Though you wouldn’t be able to retire on it alone, it’s more than coffee pocket change for most people.