June 1, 2011

Data Mining: Society’s Gift or Scourge?

Filed under: Uncategorized — publicandprivatespace @ 12:43 pm

By Tara Nagaraj

            One day, I was writing an email from my gmail account to my old flute teacher saying hello. I couldn’t help but notice that the advertisements on the side of my computer were miraculously about flute lessons, flute teachers, and flute stores. A few hours later I decided to get on Facebook, and I also noticed that when I went on Facebook that the advertisements on my profile page consisted of Jane Austen novel sales, Indian restaurant deals, and Coldplay promotions. These happen to be some of the things that I liked on my profile page. Even when I checked the mail, I found myself as the recipient of several catalogues for Banana Republic and Old Navy from which I made some online purchases during the holidays. One might wonder how these advertisements are so accurate. The answer is the process of data mining, and it’s becoming a profitable tool for advertising companies. However, much of the corporate data mining is unauthorized, which infringes upon the privacy of the public. There are not enough laws and regulations to limit the power of these data mining companies, thus businesses have unrestricted access to very important personal information.

            Data mining is the process of analyzing and interpreting data from different outlooks and summarizing it into useful information (Palace, 1996). Data mining analysis is not a new technique and has actually been around for a while. Its popularity really rose in the 1990’s when computer technology first really started to advance. Today, data mining has many uses in industries besides in business. The government uses data mining to enforce national security by looking at suspicious online activity and connect it to terrorism suspects. In medical treatments, data mining has been used to make sense of the different DNA sequences in the Human Genome Project (Ting, 2003). While these are effective, corporate data mining has raised some controversy as of late. Much of data mining occurs without the consumer’s knowledge. Thus, they are not giving their permission for companies to use their data and sell to other corporations. This has led consumers to believe that they have absolutely no control over their data or privacy (Brankovic, 1999).

            The fact that many have felt that they have no online privacy may be a bit of an exaggeration, but not too far from the truth. Important information such as health records, bank account data, social security number, and home address can be easily found through data mining (Clifton, 2002). This makes it simple for criminal activity such as identity theft to occur. The main issue is that people don’t really know how much of their information is private. Since most databases are not secure, people are afraid that all internet activity is being monitored all the time. Instead of Big Brother watching the public, Big Business is watching the public. Since most of the American public store important information on computers, it is easy prey for data mining analysts. People are often ignorant of the fact that once personal information is found, it can be copied and used to find other people’s private information (Freuh, 2009). There are no specific boundaries to data mining at all.

            However, is data mining really as dangerous as we make it out to be? That is a heavily debated topic. Russel Glass, CEO of the data mining company Bizo defends data mining saying, “It’s the monster-under-the-bed syndrome,” Glass says. “People are afraid of what they really don’t understand. They don’t understand that companies like us have no idea who they are. And we really give a sh—. I just want a little information that will help me sell you an ad” (Stein, 2011). That may be true, but at some point as we as consumers must draw the line. Targeted advertisements are great, but sometimes, we need to have the comfort in knowing that our information is public only when we say it is. If consumers get to choose how much of their information can be accessible, then private data bases won’t be as heavily ransacked. Advertising companies may be using data mining with no malicious intent, but the data that they have collected could easily fall in the wrong hands and traced back to the person that it came from. In this case data mining can become a dangerous device. The public should be given the tools to protect their own information in order to reclaim back their privacy.

            Data mining is definitely a useful tool and can be beneficial if used correctly, so it shouldn’t be something that is seen as a completely negative device. If data mining is transformed so it doesn’t infringe upon consumer privacy but is still authorized, then both consumers and corporations can both benefit from the use of data mining. This can be achieved through three simple actions. The first thing is that consumers should know exactly how much of their information is gathered and used. Second, consumers should have the right to protect their own data base, therefore grant access to whoever they see as appropriate. Finally, data should only be used for authorized purposes (Huang, 1998). Through these methods, data mining can become a tool that benefits society as well as big business. People don’t have to be in a state of constant paranoia every time they get online.  After all, as actress Sarah Chalk from the popular comedy Scrubs said, “Human beings are not meant to lose their anonymity and privacy.” I feel this statement is completely true and reflects how important privacy is in an increasingly technology driven society.


  1. I am aware that data mining companies are most likely invading my privacy, but in reality is there any practical way for us to completely protect ourselves? The only way that I can think of is to use no technology at all, and in today’s society that is close to impossible to conquer. Your actions that we should all take are very clear and simple. If these guidelines were followed by the majority there would be less problems with data mining. Even if laws were put into place now, all of the information already out there would still be at risk. It is obvious that there are loops in all laws, but I believe that if your propositions were followed it would greatly maximize the control over the future in data mining.
    Katie Roberts

    Comment by publicandprivatespace — June 1, 2011 @ 2:42 pm | Reply

  2. Although data mining can be seen as a threat, if the information falls into the wrong hands, over all I don’t see it as negative. I completely agree with the CEO’s quote, that these companies really don’t care, and we are all just numbers to them. I know if I was the companies’ situation I would want to use data mining to save money by targeting only the people interested in my product/service, and data mining is a very efficient tool to accomplish that.
    I don’t think the passing of new (more strict) laws against data mining would really reduce the risk of the data falling into the wrong hands. Because the criminals who are trying to use the data to steal people’s identity, or banking info are already breaking multiple laws so adding one more to that list doesn’t seem effective. These laws will however, hinder companies’ ability to use the data for advertisement purposes which I really don’t mind.
    Kelsey Smyth

    Comment by publicandprivatespace — June 2, 2011 @ 7:16 pm | Reply

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