Thanks to the ubiquity of data collection, everything about you can be collected — and has likely been sold.
In its broadest sense, data is information, so it’s not limited to what’s collected online. The physical notes your health care provider takes? Data. Gossiping with friends? Yeah, you’re collecting data. But with the online data market projected to grow from $162.6 billion in 2021 to $273.4 billion in 2026, data’s digital form has established itself as a primary concern.
The lack of robust federal oversight around Big Tech’s data collection assisted its predatory expansion. Now, online tracking is so common that the Pew Research Center reported about 60% of U.S. adults don’t think it’s possible to go through daily life without being tracked somehow. Most notably, Black people are more likely than white people to say they are being tracked both on and offline.
As a journalist who often covers surveillance, I’m well aware of the central role data plays in organizing our lives. Whether you’re examining data through the lens of Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff’s surveillance capitalism or the Community Justice Exchange’s data criminalization, at the end of the day, we’re all getting screwed. Rather than feeling doomed, though, some people see the inevitability of data collection and think, “How can I use this to my advantage?”
Earlier this year, I connected with Magalie Kalukula, an engineer consultant at IBM. We were both participating in a mutual friend’s documentary. It was all Black women in the room and, after interviews, we got to chatting about data. There, Kalukula told us that she sells her own data because, to paraphrase, “Someone’s going to make money off it anyway. Why not me?”
The remark stuck with me. So, I re-connected with Kalukula to chat about her experiences selling her data through Streamlytics. Founded in 2018, the company describes itself as “putting the humanity back in data.” It gained increased attention after Issa Rae acquired a minority stake in 2019.
In our conversation, Kalukula talked about why she’s always been “weird” about data, even — or perhaps especially — as a Big Tech worker herself, and why she wants more Black people to grab ahold of this technology.
How long have you been selling your own data? What got you started?
Okay, so funny story. I am a huge Issa Rae fan, right? I’ve always been weird about data because my major in college was engineering technology. That required us to take a lot of classes focused on technology and technology usage, meaning our data and everything.
Now, back to the whole Issa Rae angle. I follow Issa Rae to a tee. A couple years ago, she invested in this startup company called Streamlytics. They had this whole thing to become partial owner. And, everything Issa Rae I followed because I was a young, awkward Black girl.
[Streamlytics] was basically a place where you could download your data and sell it online. I thought it was a cool idea. I was like, “Why not do it? I can always use the extra cash.” Depending on the type of data you have, it can blossom, so that’s how I got into it.
Can you walk me through the process of selling your data a little more? Is there another app that you know people use or you’ve transferred to using yourself? And, if you’re comfortable sharing, about how much do you make from doing this?
I can only use Streamlytic’s culture app, culture.io. The main reason why I use it is because it’s publicly funded, meaning regular folks are major owners in it. It’s also a big-portion Black-owned. That was pretty important to me.
I’ve looked at other apps and I wasn’t really comfortable selling my data to [them]. That’s why I decided to stick with the Streamlytic-based app culture.io. But [using] it is as simple as going into your account [on an app]. My best advice is to do it via a desktop because you can see everything. Sometimes apps don’t have the same option.
The way culture.io works is that you fill out an account describing yourself. You’re selling [data] to people who are looking to get more information from someone who has your character. Depending on how much I’m using an app, I can make approximately approximately $100 to $200 a month.
You mentioned that you’ve always been “weird” about data. And I remember when you were talking after the documentary interview, you said something along the lines of, “If they’re gonna buy it anyway, I want to be in control of that.” Can elaborate on that point of view? And why you’ve been uncomfortable about data?
I’ve always been weird about data because I understand what data means. Long story short, I’m an immigrant from Congo. In analyzing my history as a youth, we came to the U.S., and lived in an ICE facility. All of our information was easily accessible to everyone, if that makes sense. We had no privacy; we slept in rooms with other people.
So, privacy has always been a big thing for me because, coming to America, it was quickly stripped from us. But then going into school, learning about the CIA, Patrice Lumumba, and what data is — how important it is. We think about [data] as information on the internet. But it’s also whispers from different people. It’s the channel. It’s very much the human voice and how we used to constantly spread information using the human voice regardless of the medium.
Being in the school district of Philadelphia, everything was overly monetized. Then, going into [college], everything was overly monetized, and even now more so working in Big Tech. My job is literally to sort through un-arranged data. Things you post on social media [and] elsewhere, my job is to sort through that and gain information. Every time someone goes on websites, they accept cookies. Like, whatever, I’m just trying to use a website. It’s people like me who go through this and say, “Yeah, Black women in the ages of 21 to 25 frequently visit this website during this month. We should drop our sales to have it during this month so we can make more money.”
Everything is for sale. Understanding that and seeing that in real time gives me a different perspective of data. Especially, I think, coming from a very non-private life, involuntarily. But then also working in an area where we basically invade privacy. So that’s why I’ve always been weird about data.
That’s why [I’m] like, I know they’re going to take the data anyway. So I’m going to profit off of it because everybody else is already doing it. Particularly Black people. I always feel like these are things that other groups have already been aware of for a long time. I feel like, as a people, we’re always on the last to know basis. That’s why it’s important to me to spread the message of Streamlytics.
We can do a lot of denying websites to track us. [For example], the U.K.’s [Data Protection Act] was signed in 2018. Now, it’s important to go, “Okay, I’m denying [some] people [the ability to] track me. But those websites that need to track me to give me suggestions, like Spotify, what can I do with the stuff that I’ve allowed them to track?”
Is there anything you want to add?
The one major takeaway from this is that our lives are going to become less private. I want [Black people] to grab hold of data and technology. As a marginalized group, we are the most manipulated by our data. For me, it’s important to spread knowledge of what you can make out of it. We need to not allow ourselves to be led but to lead — especially when it comes to information that we’re given these big corporations.