How Much Is Your Privacy Really Worth?

No one knows. And it might be time to stop asking.

Will Oremus
Published in
12 min readSep 17, 2019


Illustration: Timo Lenzen

For big tech platforms, this was the year when violating users’ privacy got expensive. But did it get expensive enough?

In July, Facebook agreed to pay $5 billion to settle charges that it had misled hundreds of millions of users about their data privacy. That same week, credit reporting agency Equifax was ordered to pay up to $700 million for negligence leading to a data breach that exposed the information of some 150 million people. Earlier this month, Google was fined $170 million for harvesting millions of kids’ data on YouTube without their parents’ consent. Back in February, TikTok’s parent company had to pay $5.7 million for similar violations.

Each of those fines, issued by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), was record-breaking in some way. The $5 billion Facebook settlement, in particular, dwarfed any that a U.S. company had been previously forced to pay for privacy infractions. Yet privacy advocates found it woefully insufficient, and the two Democrats on the five-member commission publicly dissented. They argued that Facebook’s gains and the public’s injuries from the platform’s fast-and-loose privacy practices may have far exceeded the amount of the fine.

Behind the big numbers is a simmering debate in tech policy and consumer economics over the true value of online privacy. At a time when the states and the federal government are eyeing sweeping privacy laws and the FTC is trying to rein in big tech’s abuses with financial penalties, a growing body of research is trying to establish just how much data protection is worth to consumers. If we could establish that dollar figure, the thinking goes, we could find the right trade-offs between their interests and those of the companies that collect and traffic in their data.

One problem: Figuring out precisely what value consumers place on their personal data is starting to look like a fool’s errand. And the people who have studied the question the most are beginning to come to the conclusion that it’s the wrong approach altogether.

On one hand, we know people say they want more online privacy. Surveys find that the vast majority of Americans feel they’ve lost control of their data and worry…