Taking Back Data

New Mexico startup TARTLE offers customers the chance to sell their info on the open market

TARTLE co-founder Alexander McCaig will be a speaker at the April 2020 Know Identity conference (knowidentity.com) in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Julia Goldberg)

Last January, the Pew Research Center reported on Americans' understanding of the online algorithms that compile information about our habits, preferences and identities. Put simply, most commercial sites gather data on users' behavior (and sell it to data brokers). Using Facebook as an example, Pew surveyed users to determine how well they understood the platform's practice of collecting such information: 74% did not realize Facebook was maintaining lists of their preferences and traits, while 27% did not believe the classifications properly represented them.

A New Mexico startup believes its platform will both help people take control of their data as well as ensure the information they provide to companies accurately reflects who they are.

TARTLE co-founder Alexander McCaig, whose company launched in 2017 and went live last August, says the idea came to him and co-founder Jonathan Shelon during a conversation in a New York City steakhouse (before McCaig went vegan).

"I was like, 'All these people are creating swaths of information,'" McCaig recalls of their conversation, "'but they're not receiving value for it.'"

The two Temple University alumni went on to create TARTLE (https://tartle.co), an online marketplace in which users can link their social profiles and sell data packets of their information anonymously for cryptocurrency (Bitcoin). For entities purchasing data, the process eliminates data brokers. For data creators (aka everyone who uses the internet), the marketplace puts control back in their hands and monetizes information they, rightfully, should own.

Putting people in charge of their own data, McCaig maintains, addresses many of the myriad current concerns about data and privacy.

"It's under scrutiny because you're not the one controlling that information," he says. "It's under scrutiny because other people are moving your information back and forth without your consent."

That certainly is a large element of the current scrutiny. On Jan. 1, the new California Consumer Privacy Act went into effect, allowing users to access personal data some companies have collected, demand that information be deleted and prevent it from being sold to third-party brokers. In last year's New Mexico legislative session, state Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, introduced a bill that echoed elements of California's law, but the measure died. Padilla told AdWeek magazine recently he plans to reshape and reintroduce the bill in the future.

Back to TARTLE. Co-founder Shelon still resides in New York. McCaig moved to Albuquerque, and TARTLE is located at the Santa Fe Business Incubator. (The name is an all-caps version of a Scottish word describing hesitation when trying to remember someone's name.) McCaig sees his company as having multiple points of impact. When he's talking to the general public, he says, he's asked to explain why people would sign up to sell their own information. The answer is simple: money. The range for records varies—an average of $320 for a medical record each time you sell it versus maybe a buck for your Facebook data. "It's a financial incentive," he says. Then on top of that, "You get privacy. You get control." For him, the TARTLE marketplace is a way "to reset a power imbalance and ensure there's a tool to do so. I want to show that people are the ones who have always had the true power and they've forgotten that. We are the ones who determine what people do with their resources."

In other words, he says, if companies rely directly on consumers to share their behaviors, proclivities and desires, "that means we have…an objective idea of what we need to do with with our resources, our environment, our finances, social movements, political changes. There's no reason anymore, there's no excuse, for us to make any bad decisions, because all the information is available to us."

I found McCaig convincing, while at the same time had Black Mirror images of myself in some decrepit future attached to a computer asking me endless questions about what flavor of biogenetic ice cream I wanted to eat.

Travis Kellerman, a startup strategist and advisor described as TARTLE's "futurist advisor," tells me that while that sort of dystopian response might have been more accurate years ago, the system uses automation, so people aren't just "part of click farms" sitting in front of computers all day long answering questions. Kellerman also agreed with me that, yes, everything can be connected to The Matrix. In this case, though, he says the system is designed to give people back their agency, not enslave them. "It's in the mission statement," he says. "And in the design of the platform itself."

He sees TARTLE as having a "big lift" to scale and democratize the data economy. But "I really believe in this new vision of the future around data."

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