The Dangers of Data Mining

Monday Author: Susanne Skinner

“There’s no code of conduct. There’s no standard. There’s nothing that safeguards privacy and establishes rules of the road.”

~ Senator John Kerry

Data is a powerful and valuable tool, especially for advertising and marketing firms.  It is the intersection of information and human behavior. When married to predictive analytics it’s the holy grail of data about you and what you will do next.

Technically, data mining is the process of finding correlations or patterns among dozens of fields in large relational databases. This sounds dry, but it’s the way successful retailers and Internet companies make their money. Predictive analytics uses historical patterns to determine future outcomes. Technically, data mining is the process of finding correlations or patterns among dozens of fields in large relational databases. This sounds dry, but it’s the way successful retailers and Internet companies make their money. Predictive analytics uses historical patterns to determine future outcomes.

But it’s also commercial surveillance. Nearly every transaction or interaction leaves a data signature that someone somewhere captures and stores. Without data mining all they know is what you tell them. With data mining and analytics they can guess a whole lot more. It is a dangerous and powerful tool.

Data mining allows companies and governments to use information you provide to reveal more than you think. For example, Target can predict if you’re pregnant, Walmart predicts when you will buy Pop Tarts and Beer and MIT students claim they can predict if you are straight or gay.

That should scare you, but most people don’t comprehend the dangers of data mining because they don’t know what it looks like. The reality is that it affects everything you say and do. And you gave them a great deal of the information.

What is Data Mining? 

Here’s a more relatable definition: Data mining is a multi-billion dollar industry founded on the collection and sale of every personal and behavioral detail of your life. What you buy, where you go, whom and what you love, is packaged and sold every single day.

Take Facebook. Originally designed for college students as a social networking Web site, Facebook allows each user to create a profile. Users volunteer information such as address or location (check-in), mobile number, interests, religious and political views, favorite songs and movies, and even the requisite data for online dating like gender, relationship status, and sexual orientation.

In addition to creating individual profiles, Facebook users can designate other users as friends, send messages, and post pictures.The burden of privacy is on the individual user but it’s still a data miner’s dream.

You can choose what to post and who gets to see it but for data miners it’s an information treasure chest. You have offered up all the things you like and, because of your connections; they know what your friends like. It’s the basis for predictive analytics. Every detail of your life is being extracted from the Internet, bundled and traded by data-mining companies.

Remember that funny test you took that asks for the color of your underwear combined with the last thing you ate to determine your stripper name? Data Mining. How about that Facebook quiz that challenged you to get all 10 questions and you nailed it? That’s data mining.

They See You

Each of these pieces of information is what advertisers use to send pop-up ads, email offers, catalogs, and much more. Data mining identifies every place you go and everything you look at.

Data collected identifies you as you travel around the Web; from apps downloaded on your computer and cell phone asking for contacts and location—freely given by you.Data collected identifies you as you travel around the Web; from apps downloaded on your computer and cell phone asking for contacts and location—freely given by you.

What’s that you say?  Nobody notified you they were doing that?! Guess what?  They don’t have to. People willingly hand over the information. The technology developed by the Air Force to detect insider threats by data mining email messages is the same technology embedded into the “how many songs can you name from the movie Frozen” quiz you just took.

Data mining is primarily used by companies with a strong consumer focus—retail, financial, communication, and marketing organizations. They determine relationships among internal factors such as price, product positioning, or staff skills, and external factors such as economic indicators, competition, and customer demographics. From there, they can determine the impact on sales, customer satisfaction, and corporate profits.

While harnessing the power of data analytics is a competitive advantage, data mining can backfire. When companies expertly capture details as personal as pregnancy, bankruptcy and health risks, the results are egregious privacy violations. 

When Good Turns Evil

This is bad enough in a well-functioning democracy but what if the data gets into the hands of Dr. Evil? In his novel Nineteen-Eighty-Four George Orwell wrote of a futuristic and evil world where surveillance headed by Big Brother watches and controls everyone. Was he wrong?

This is bad enough in a well-functioning democracy but what if the data gets into the hands of Dr. Evil? In his novel Nineteen-Eighty-Four George Orwell wrote of a futuristic and evil world where surveillance headed by Big Brother watches and controls everyone. Was he wrong? Cyber security is a soap box topic of mine. We utilize only about 3% of the Internet iceberg; the other 97% lurks below the water. This is where data normally used for good (sometimes extreme purposes) goes bad. Humans remain the weakest link in the chain.Cyber security is a soap box topic of mine. We utilize only about 3% of the Internet iceberg; the other 97% lurks below the water. This is where data normally used for good (sometimes extreme purposes) goes bad. Humans remain the weakest link in the chain.

Senator John Kerry, Chair of the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet has repeatedly proposed a bill that requires companies to make sure all the stuff they know about you is secured from hackers, lets you inspect what they have, correct mistakes and opt out. It has never passed, despite the fact that over 90% of employees violate policies designed to prevent data breaches.

Protection tools are minimal.  Here are two that are eye-openers about data mining and how it’s used:

  • Ghostery is a free browser extension that lets you watch the watchers watching you. Each time you visit a new website, a little bubble pops up that lists all the data trackers checking you out.
  • aboutthedata.com allows individuals to see information collected on them. Users set up an account and are directed to a portal that allows access to educational, financial and personal information attached to the account.

I did it. Some of it was inaccurate, but there was way too much that wasn’t.

 

 

2 thoughts on “The Dangers of Data Mining

  1. Hi Mike – all good points if the intent is good re-marketing and targeted campaigns. Then the words that come to mind are annoying, spam, junk mail and recycle. But I have seen this generic type of information willingly handed over and turned into the dark side so quickly it scared me. It is way to easy to find someone’s social and wreck havoc…all because they took a quiz that told them what 70’s rock start they most resembled.

    Cynthia James, of Kaspersky Labs, whom I had the pleasure of meeting and inviting to keynote a user conference gets the credit for my education. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

  2. The sharing of data isn’t as bad as you appear to suggest, but it IS bad. Stores like Target may sell your data, but not including your name, SS# or address typically, at least not without your explicit consent and offer you something in exchange. They can sell data about what is being bought, with some demographics about when and where usually.

    If the data was as rich, deep and pervasive as I think you’re suggesting, then data breaches like Target had in fact experienced, wouldn’t be such a big deal wouldn’t you think?

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