Devil in the detail: Your untapped privacy 'goldmine'

By Hamza Ali, special to

Right now, and all across the web, people are buying or selling your information – most of the time without you even noticing.

According to the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB), companies' spending on online advertising in the first quarter of 2014 in the U.S. was $11 billion.

Advertisers are drawn to the web due to "digital's unique ability to identify the most relevant audience segments," says Sherrill Mane, senior vice-president, Research, Analytics and Measurement, IAB.

This has created a multibillion-dollar market for personal data online and it's growing quickly as advertisers seek ever more precise targeting for their advertisements.

Eric Piermont | AFP | Getty Images

So why aren't you seeing a penny of all these companies making money from your personal data?

New apps like Citizenme, launched this year, aim to fix just that, allowing you to tap into the "gold mine" that is your personal data.

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These apps or services, known as personal information management services (PIMS), are designed to make the individuals and organisations producing all this data into stakeholders.

Citizenme users will be able to sell their data in exchange for money, discounts and perks as advertisers, seek better information to target their customers, believes the app's CEO, StJohn Deakins.

Users can get between $3-$10 a-year from selling their data, but the real value says Deakins "comes in the big ticket items", where users can gain really relevant personalised advertisements and discounts based on information they provide.

"We can now run apps on peoples mobile devices, allow them to form long-term trusted relationships based on a purely voluntary bases … allowing the consumer to control his own data", says Deakins.

Trading data

Most of your personally identifiable information (PII) data is sold online in high-speed online auctions to advertisers so that they can target their ads better.

Advertisers bid for specific traits they believe will make you more likely to click, and ultimately buy the advertised product.

They bid on average $0.50 per 1,000 users for basic age, gender and location data. Income details and shopping histories are slightly more costly at $1 per 1,000 users.

Websites are increasingly demanding more detailed and relevant PII from users as it allows for better advert targeting.

That's why "the more information they have on the individual the higher the value of the person," says Deakins.

A recently published research paper by Cornell University found that location data is the most valuable data to advertisers. The research also pointed out the detail of the information also increased its value of the individual.

Other prospectors

Citizenme is not the only start-up aiming to fill this space; others include and Datacoup who both have similar offerings.

The idea of people trading their own data has been around for years but has never quite taken off. With examples as far back as 2006, were the now defunct Root Markets attempted to get users to spy on themselves.

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The current crop of apps aimed at helping users sell their data hope this is an idea that has finally found its time, with advent of new software, social media and mobile devices that allow for easy and innocuous passive data collection.

Other PIMS hoping to tap into this growing area include Bubblews, a social network, currently in beta, that pays users one cent per click, like or comment on their posts, but only in $50 intervals.

The devil is in the details

In a recent survey, by Accenture Interactive, of 2,000 U.S. and U.K. consumers found that 88 percent of respondents strongly agree or agree that it is important for companies to give them the flexibility to control how their personal information is used. And 64 percent are willing to be tracked in exchange for receiving relevant content.

Despite this the concept of individuals selling their own data has come under fire from some quarters.

Online privacy advocates feel that imprecise, patchy and fast changing regulations make the impact of selling your personal unclear.

"There is a jurisdiction problem" says Jim Killock executive director of Open Rights Group, a U.K. based privacy advocacy group. "We have to think about … if companies might say you signed a contract, we only abide by U.S. laws and you have no further entitlement other than what our contract said."

This becomes an issue for European citizens who have stronger data protection laws than their U.S. counterparts.

Killock adds that stronger laws governing data protection rights proposed in Europe over the deletion and use of data provided by an individual need to be in place for people to have "greater confidence if they are sharing more information."

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