If you want to know how much Web companies know about you, talk to Max Schrems. The Austrian law student used European Union privacy laws to obtain all the data Facebook had collected on him over a three-year period. It amounted to 1,222 pages of information, including copies of posts he had deleted months earlier and the time and date of each of his log-ins. “It’s very frightening,” says Schrems.
Facebook, Google, and other companies collect and use such data to make billions of dollars on targeted advertising. Now SWIFT (the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication), the nonprofit global cooperative that handles wire transfers between financial institutions, is working on a system that would let Web surfers store and manage their own data, much like money in a bank account, and selectively lend it to companies that provide a benefit in return. It will allow people to “take back control of their digital assets,” says Peter Vander Auwera, a member of the nine-person team, dubbed the Innotribe, that’s working on the project.