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Senators want tech companies to reveal dollar value of user data

Major tech companies like Apple will have to reveal how much user data is worth to the company, a bipartisan proposal from senators suggests, with the 'Dashboard Act' requiring firms who make money off data collection practices to disclose revenue generated by it, as well as what is being done to protect it.

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The legislation, from Senators Mark Warner (D-VA) and Josh Hawley (R-MO) aims to inform consumers how much revenue major tech companies are earning off their data. Warner believes consumers should be more informed about the items of information they give up to apps and services, which is the price paid by users of ad-supported "free" services.

"These companies take enormous, enormous amounts of data about us," said Warner to Axios. "If you're an avid Facebook user, chances are Facebook knows more about you than the US government knows about you. People don't realize one, how much data is being collected; and two, they don't realize how much that data is worth."

The value of data varies between estimates, with some putting it at around $20 per user per month while Warner proposes it could be as little as $5 per user per month.



Under the legislation, which has the full title of the "Designing Accounting Safeguards to Help Broaden Oversight and Regulations on Data Act," companies that generate revenue from data collection or processing and have more than 100 million monthly users will be required to disclose to users the types of data collected, its usage, and an assessment of its value once every 90 days.

Every year, the firms will also have to disclose the aggregate value of all of their users' data to the Securities and Exchange Commission, including details of contracts with third parties for data collection, how revenue is generated, and how that data is protected by the company. The SEC would also be empowered to develop methods for calculating the value of user data, taking into account variations in uses, sectors, and business models of the companies involved.

The companies would also have to provide settings or tools for users to delete some or all of their data.

Warner also plans to introduce a separate bill in the coming weeks to require user data to be more portable, allowing users to transfer it more easily between platforms.

The proposals arrive at a time when tech companies are under pressure over the monitoring and collection of user data, along with other privacy concerns. Arguably the most impactful of recent times is that of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where user data was acquired and used for political purposes, and has led to Facebook facing decades of government oversight and billions of dollars in fines.

While previously a practice performed by carriers in the United States, the Federal Communications Commission advised in May the major cellular providers in the United States have, for the most part, stopped selling customer geolocation data to third-party aggregators. That location data had the potential to be used by advertisers to know where consumers go, including stores they visit, which could inform what advertising could be offered in the future.

In May, it was alleged Snapchat employees were able to abuse privileged data management tools to snoop on the service's users, shortly after other allegations claimed Amazon employees were able to listen to snippets of audio recorded by Echo devices when users speak to Alexa.

Apple has historically kept itself from collecting identifiable user data where possible, and has worked to implement new technologies like "Sign in with Apple" which aim to minimize data collection further for its users.

In a Stanford University commencement speech on June 16, Apple CEO Tim Cook warned of the threat of corporate and government surveillance, referencing privacy scandals from competitors and advising people "shouldn't treat mass data collection as normal."

"If we accept as normal and unavoidable that everything in our lives can be aggregated, sold, and even leaked in the event of a hack, then we lose so much more than data," said Cook to students. "We lose the freedom to be human."