Is Data The Next Form of Currency?

Ethan Beaulieu
Staff Writer

In an age of increasingly targeted advertising, a cafe takes a step to further in the path of data mining. Shiru cafe has now opened its first United States location, adding to the over twenty stores it has in Japan and India.

Shiru cafe in Providence Rhode Island, near Brown University, isn’t what you’d expect of a standard college town coffee shop. The cheap caffeine fix college students crave is now cheaper than ever- as in, free. Well, not completely free. Instead of paying the usual couple bucks for a cup of joe, college students pay with their information. Full names, emails, majors and even job aspirations are taken as payment in exchange for their product. Some students praise the system as innovative, while others criticize the exploitation of data as a breach of privacy.

First, we have to understand a little more about how Shiru works. As mentioned earlier, Shiru accepts payment in the form of data. This system, however, is only available to students, with customers who wish to pay being turned away. The one exception to this rule being professors who are allowed to pay a dollar.

This comes as a surprise to many. After all, isn’t the purpose of business to attract customers? The answer to this is simple: they don’t seek to make a profit off the coffee itself, but instead off the data that they receive from the students.

Students who wish to trade their information in exchange for coffee must first download Shiru’s app which allows them to fill out survey, view ads and other like items. The data is collected and stored for later purchase by “sponsors.” Customers are then provided with plenty of table space, electrical outlets and free wifi to do work.

It is also requested by the cafe that students remain inside the building while enjoying the coffee. This is because the cafe hosts screens on many of its surfaces, all displaying various advertisements and sponsored events. Of course, many students take the coffee and leave, as there is no actual obligation to remain on the premises.

Sounds harmless so far, right? But what is the data used for exactly? It is common knowledge that the market for consumer data is enormous. The more information a company has on their target audience, the better they can sell their product to them. This type of data and its use is not quite the same as that.

Each cafe is paired with one or more sponsors, some with big names like Microsoft. The companies then pay the cafe for the data which is then used to promote internships and job opportunities at that company. Students who provide their email open themselves up to receiving information about potential careers and the like. Shiru cafe assures that customer data is safely-guarded, and that individual specific information is not given out; they refer to it as is aggregate data. This means that instead of looking at each individual’s data profile they look at everyones as a whole.

For example, if a company is seeking interns in the marketing department, they would purchase and receive access to a list of emails of students who have a major or concentration in that field. In order for Shiru to acquire the data, they must be close to the school. More importantly, in order to make the data valuable they must be near prestigious schools. In order to offer worthy data to recruiters, the test population must be the upcoming best in their field.

Some, however, don’t agree with Shiru’s practices, like two writers for Brown University’s college newspaper. Their contention is not with their form of currency, but rather with who they choose to partner with, specifically J.P Morgan. For those who may not be aware, J.P Morgan has a history of using deceitful financial practices which contributed to the 2008 financial crisis. The writers of the article condemned the promotion of immoral businesses by the cafe and cited that 42 percent of J.P Morgan’s new hires in 2017 were patrons of Shiru. Curiously enough, this seems to be one of the only major concerns expressed by students at Brown.

The idea that data is becoming a form of currency is not as foreign as it once was. Several students have mentioned in interviews that most of the data that is being requested by the cafe is stuff that is already accessible on the internet, either through Facebook, Linkedin, or a simple Google search.

Few remain skeptical of selling their data, saying that the product was not of equal value. Others were unsettled by the idea of a product being only available to students. Still the question remains; is the buying and selling of another’s data a breach of privacy? Or is it simply the newest product in an evolving market?

Categories: Opinions

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