Q&A: Using Games To Raise Awareness About The Big Business Of Personal Data

While the world was watching the National Security Agency (NSA) leaks expose broad programs of government surveillance, a browser game from a small group of mostly Austrian developers hoping to highlight how for-profit industries are capitalizing on the collection of personal data saw its English release. In Data Dealer, which is currently nearing the end of a Kickstarter fundraising drive to develop a multi-player version, players take on the role of a data broker using a variety of (sometimes nefarious) tactics to profit from an empire of personal data and learn about how their own information is collected and commodified along the way.

Data Dealer’s Wolfie Christl discussed the business of personal information with ThinkProgress in a Q&A; over email. ThinkProgress’ questions are bolded and answers have been lightly edited.Could you describe the central message behind Data Dealer and how you hope players will react to it?

In the digital age, nearly everything we do is recorded, tracked, or monitored in some way. At the same time, most people are completely bored of all that preaching on what to be careful about when using social networks or smartphones — children and teenagers especially. That’s why we came up with the idea to create a casual and fun game where players take on the role of bad guy and collect and sell data themselves. I believe our approach could enable users to better understand central questions like: What kinds of personal data exist? Who is collecting this data and what do they want it for? And what could that mean for me and my future?

And who is largely collecting personal data and for what purposes, good or bad?

The largest one — the U.S. company Acxiom — has for example collected personal details of more than 500 million people and stores up to 1500 attributes per individual in their databases. These range from education and employment history, credit and residential history, to consumer behavior and health interests. Another one is Lexis Nexis Risk Solutions, which has a similar amount of data. It is offering services like employee screening, selling data to insurance companies or about “problem renters,” and of course also to governmental agencies. Good or bad? Depends on your role. If someone managed to link these offline consumer records with the giant amounts of personal data out there on the Web, things would become really interesting… Are you familiar with the reports that Acxiom will be allowing consumers to view the dossiers they collect on them in the near future and do you think that type of disclosure about the amount and content of data being collected about them will change behavior?  I can hardly wait. I hope Acxiom will really become more transparent in this respect. But what could also happen is that they’ll just show you a small part of their collected data — like Facebook is now doing thanks to the efforts of our Austrian friend Max Schrems. In Austria and in most European countries, we still have the right to ask companies which personal information they store about us. I’m a researcher, developer, and game designer, not a legal expert like Max Schrems, but I think this should be a basic right. In a positive future digital society we should have the right to ask both corporations and the government which personal data they have about us. In general, I believe that it’s crucial for people to understand “personal data” and its value before they will be able to make a self-determined use of it.


What do you think of data protection in Europe versus the United States? Do you have an opinion about Federal Trade Commission member Julie Brill’s “Reclaim Your Name” campaign?  I like this campaign. It’s about many of the things we’ve already got in Europe: Accessing your own information, opting out, correcting errors, and so on. Ironically, if all the lobbying on the European Union’s data protection reform is successful, we might soon lose some of these rights. But again: I’m not a lawyer. I’m sure regulations are one important way to go, but I’m focusing much more on knowledge and awareness. Collecting, collating, and selling personal data — how does that work and who profits? That’s why we’ve made a game about today’s personal data ecosystem. Our goal is to raise awareness and provoke a conversation about surveillance, personal data, and privacy. If people know about the possible implications and risks of permanently handing all their everyday life details over to some shady server farms at the other end of the world, they could either demand regulations or that companies and services act a lot more trustworthy than they do today.

What do you think are the most interesting or promising areas in terms of the personal data field?

During the development of “Data Dealer” over the last two years, we tried to think up potential business models in the field of personal data to put into our game. But every time we thought we’d invented something new, something really scary — we found out that it’s already out there. For example, the area of body and health data is very interesting and I’m sure it will become really profitable. Think of all those self-tracking apps and devices that are measuring not only your steps, calories, heartbeats, but also your sleep and even your mood. This is a gold mine! There’s even a Californian startup that plans to create a platform for genetic data brokerage. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-technology, far from it. I love digital technologies. But it’s crucial that we can trust the apps and services we’re using. At the moment there’s definitely a lack of that.