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This cafe lets students trade their data for a ‘free’ cup of coffee

“There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” says the narrator in Robert Heinlein’s 1966 science-fiction novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. As it turns out, there may be no such thing as a free coffee, either. At least, that’s our takeaway from Shiru Cafe, an international line of cafes with one United States branch near Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island — and more soon to open in the U.S. at Harvard, Yale and Princeton universities, and Amherst College.

Shiru offers a “brand new unique business model,” namely to give out free cups of coffee exchange for user data. In other words, it’s the same business model used by tech giants like Facebook, Google, and others — only with caffeine instead of “free” social media or email access. In order to get their free coffee, students must sign up with their name, email, college or university, major, year in school, and professional interests. This is then used to target them with information from corporate brands who essentially sponsor the running of the cafe.

“Through a free drink, we try to give students some information which sponsor company [sic] would like to inform exclusively for university students to diverse the choices of their future career,” the company’s website notes.

In an email to Digital Trends, a representative for Shiru Cafe said that it “takes students’ privacy very seriously and does not share this information with any third parties or directly with our sponsor companies.” Instead, the information is provided in aggregate and then used to arrange face-to-face meet-ups with recruiters in which additional information can be provided.

The Brown branch of Shiru Cafe opened in March and has “exceeded” the company’s expectations. The company estimates that more than 75 percent of Brown students will register with the cafe this semester and it is already receiving upward of 600 customers each day.

It’s definitely an interesting idea, although it’s certainly easy to see why some might find asking cash-poor students to instead trade their data for beverages could be troubling. Still, as noted, this is a business model that is well established among Silicon Valley tech giants. So if we’re worried about trading data for coffee, why are we happy to trade it for email, search engine results, access to social networks, and more?

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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