Data miners 'dig' your life story

Data mining is an inescapable fact of life in the Digital Age. These practices have significant social implications that need to be considered by everyone.

Information is the new currency. When it comes to social-networking sites and many other online enterprises, your attention is the product that is being sold. So it is not surprising that data mining, particularly efforts to link your online behavior to specific opportunities to market to you, is an exploding trend.

Data mining in itself is not inherently good or bad, but it raises many social issues whose implications we all need to understand and include in our ongoing dialogue. Data mining has benefits, including an opportunity to create a customized online experience that truly serves you better. Misuses can lead to serious breaches of privacy. I encountered several stories on data mining Tuesday that caught my attention.

According to Newsweek, the new book Super Crunchers argues that data mining constitutes "a powerful trend that will shape the economy for years to come: the replacement of expertise and intuition by objective, data-based decision making, made possible by a virtually inexhaustible supply of inexpensive information. Those who control and manipulate this data will be the masters of the new economic universe."

I am interested in reading the book, as Super Crunchers author Ian Ayres is also the co-author of the excellent Why Not?: How to Use Everyday Ingenuity to Solve Problems Big and Small, but it seems premature to conclude that data mining signals the impending obsolescence of human intuition and expertise. There must be a more complex relationship between these concepts. After all, what are intuition and expertise other than the results of the brain's own "data mining" process? I would argue that data mining is more like the automation of expertise, with the limitation that it operates without the X factor of human judgment, the complexity of thought analysis that has yet to be programmed.

NPR reports that Facebook is developing a system to allow marketers to serve customized ads to members based on the information provided in profiles and messages. Google has of course been doing this for a while with Gmail, and it still creeps me out. Yes, I know it is all done automatically and may not technically be a breach of privacy, but it still feels invasive to me to have the content of my e-mail extracted and repurposed as an advertisement. It will be interesting to see how users react to a similar strategy employed on Facebook.

And finally, Tuesday as I was writing about school Web sites and the need to be aware of privacy issues, I was reminded of a case of possibly legal, yet reprehensible data mining. There is so much information about all of us floating out there, and these bits and pieces are being captured and analyzed in sophisticated ways to be put to commercial use. The company infoUSA is one of the largest compilers of consumer information, selling mailing lists for direct marketers. Much of this use is above-board, if annoying, to consumers who receive junk mail and phone calls. However, infoUSA may also have crossed an ethical line. Regulators charge that infoUSA has sold personal data about elderly Americans to known lawbreakers, who then prey on the seniors as targets of telemarketing scams. According to an article in The New York Times (registration required), the specific lists advertised by infoUSA included "Suffering Seniors," 4.7 million people with cancer or Alzheimer's disease, and "Oldies but Goodies," a list of gamblers over 55 years old.

Hearing about this was one of the wake-up calls that made me realize that whether we as individuals live our lives online or off, we are all affected by the compilation and commercialization of our personal information, including life circumstances, habits and vulnerabilities. It's not just an issue of "irresponsible teens," "gullible seniors" or "inattentive parents" carelessly posting their information online. One thing is for sure, we are beyond the point of solving these challenges just by checking a box to "opt out."

 

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