Data Mining

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Computers have completely altered how we live our lives. Not all of this has been for the better, though. With the power of a computer to ingest and distill vast amounts of data, companies have become able to analyze how people live and what they do. Data mining has led to some interesting results, but there has also been lots of downside, as well. One of those downsides has been an increased concern for data breaches when someone gains unauthorized access to all of the information that a company has collected. Another has been the invasion of privacy that happens when people collect the data, even when that information has been voluntarily disclosed on social media sites like Facebook.

The lawyers at Gilman & Bedigian know that data mining has become a widespread technique, and that it can pose a risk to unsuspecting victims. When those victims get hurt because someone else or a large corporation gathered their personal information in order to mine it for their own purposes, those victims deserve to be compensated for their losses.

What is Data Mining?

At its core, data mining is nothing more than collecting huge amounts of data and then looking for trends in it. While professionals from marketers to social scientists to biologists have been doing this for decades, accessible computer power has spread the use of data mining to other fields, which have found new and sometimes startling uses for the practice.

For example, Google uses data mining to determine which websites someone is likely looking for, based on where they are, what words they include in their search, and their past search history. By combining all of these factors, and taking into account how other people have interacted with websites when conducting similar or identical searches, Google promotes certain sites over others.

Another example of data mining in action has been the development of computer programs that analyze the board game Go, and then create newer approaches to win the game. By collecting millions of moves from prior games and looking at how well certain maneuvers are for certain situations, computers have been able to mine the data that those earlier games provided and use that information to create new and better moves. In one experiment, a supercomputer was taught the rules of the game and programmed to play against itself over and over again, effectively creating its own data set to mine for information. Through repetition and slight variation in strategies, along with intensive analysis of how certain moves altered the flow of the game, the computer was able to “teach” itself how to play Go so well that it began beating the best human players in the world.

The Dangerous Need for More and More Data

Data mining is becoming responsible for some of the more startling developments in the world. However, all instances of data mining require huge amounts of information to delve into. Without a set of data to mine, nothing can be done. Better and larger sets of data lead to better and more reliable information that can be used to draw the connections and trends between separate instances and better predict the future.

Gathering that data has become one of the most pressing privacy concerns in a generation. When data mining was in its infancy, data collection was primitive. However, as mining has become more prevalent and more money is getting invested into its use, data collection companies have grown and become more lucrative, as well. With more investment has come more novel ways of collecting an ever-increasing amount of data about all sorts of things, including people. Some of those ways of collecting data have been passive and non-controversial. Others, though, are incredibly blatant abuses of privacy that rely on deception to gain access to information that people do not even know they are providing.

For example, early methods of data collection were often very passive and simplistic. In order for a town or municipality to determine whether to change the timing on a certain stop light at a certain intersection, a data collection company could be hired and they would, quite literally, count the cars that pass through the intersection.

Now, though, data collection has become so integrated into products that many of the things we buy and use and designed specifically to gather data about us so that the information can be mined. For example, head up displays in cars are marketed as safety features in new and luxury vehicles, but can also record information about your driving habits that can be used for numerous other applications, from developing self-driving vehicles to honing actuarial tables at insurance companies. People who buy and install a head up display for their vehicle could be providing the information that their insurance company needs to hike up their insurance rates, and not even know it.

Social Media: Where People Voluntarily Disclose Personal Information

Perhaps the most striking and blatantly invasive method of data collection has been social media, particularly the website Facebook.

Masquerading as a way to keep up with friends and find things to do in your area, Facebook is really nothing more than a marketing platform that allows companies and corporations to see what you like, where you live, and what you do with your time. These details are exactly the types of data that marketers and businesses are looking for, and want to mine. Armed with all of that information – information that Facebook users disclose, voluntarily – companies can then target their advertising efforts on the people they are most likely to impress, drastically improving the return on investment of their advertising budget. In this way, Facebook has become the perfect encapsulation of the old adage, “if you are not the consumer, you are the product,” with Facebook selling its users information to the platform’s advertisers to the tune of nearly a billion dollars every year.

However, Facebook is not the only website to harvest its user’s voluntarily disclosed data: Other social media sites rely on the same business model of enticing its users to talk about themselves for marketers to hear and for data collection groups to monitor. And not all data collection efforts online are based on the concept of social media – search engines like Google and Bing also collect billions of pieces of information about what people are searching for, online. Search engines then mine that data to provide results that are more closely tailored to what a search engine user is likely looking for, in the future, honing the algorithms that provide the results for a particular search.

Credit, Debit, and Loyalty Cards: Data Mining to Find Trends from Past Purchases

Voluntarily disclosing personal information about your life is not just reserved for the internet, though. Every time you make a purchase with a credit card, debit card, or use a loyalty or rewards card, you leave valuable information about what you buy that data collection companies are itching to access.

Customer loyalty cards provide the least resistance to data collection and mining efforts – most of them are actually managed by data collection companies who have been contracted to work with the store that is running the loyalty program. Tracking which merchandise you buy, when you shop, and how much you spend provides valuable information that the data collection company can use to send targeted advertisements in your direction. The data can also be used to extrapolate to predict other important aspects of your life, like your level of income, marital status, and whether you have any children.

Debit and credit cards work just like customer loyalty cards in that they can be used to track someone’s buying habits and precise purchase history. Unlike loyalty cards, though, they are directly managed by the banks that house the accounts connected to the card, making it more difficult for data collection companies to access the information they contain. Increasingly, though, that has not been stopping companies from getting their hands on this treasure trove of private information. Data breaches at banks and the stores where cards were used have allowed collection companies the opportunity to buy huge amounts of information from hackers and then mine the data to gather new and valuable insights into what people want and what they might be interested in buying.

Concerns About Data Mining: Privacy and Data Breaches

As data collection companies get more innovative and invasive in their practices, privacy concerns have quickly become a leading issue in the world of data mining. While everyone recognizes that there is a public world where what they do can be seen by others, and that they have little expectation of privacy out there, there is a line that can be crossed. Every day, data collection organizations are pushing that line further and further towards places and situations that everyone would assume were private.

For example, many large corporations have been selling “smart speakers” that can connect to the internet and to other devices in your home and play music, videos, or show other content when you ask it to. Whether it is the Amazon Echo, Google Home, or another brand, people rave about how convenient they are and well integrated they become with the other devices they own. It was not long, however, before it became apparent that the voice activation on many of these devices could be used to passively listen into very private conversations within the home. Information learned in these private chats, after all, could be incredibly useful for data mining because of how candid and genuine they are.

There are plenty of people who do not care much about the privacy implications of data collection and mining. Their chief rebuttal is that the information obtained in these endeavors is only used to send advertisements to the people who are more likely to want to buy what is advertised. To them, this is actually a good thing: Buyers might learn of new and better products that they would otherwise be oblivious to, or can hear of sales and discounts that are actually in their interest.

However, this presumes that the information collected stays in the hands of companies who are only interested in mining it to better target advertisements. And as more companies collect vast amounts of data about their customers and other people, more nefarious actors like identity thieves know that there banks of data that they can access with the right hack. For these hackers, huge collections of data – especially financial data, like bank account numbers or PINs, or personal information like Social Security Numbers or passport numbers – are gold mines of information that they can use to steal someone’s identity or clear their bank account.

The threat that data breaches present is not a theoretical one: New data breaches happen at an alarming rate, with each new one seeming to surpass the severity of the last. The data breach at Marriott Hotels is just one example in a long string that allowed hackers to copy personal information ranging from names and birthdates and addresses to bank account details, PIN numbers, and passport information. Millions of people have been known to be impacted by the Marriott Hotel data breach, alone, and there are thousands of data breaches every year. Thousands more may never be detected.

Gilman & Bedigian: Lawyers Protecting Your Privacy and Security

Data mining is just one piece in the very complicated puzzle that is that business of your privacy. Millions of dollars in business rely on collecting and mining your data, and as more is learned about who you are, the closer data collection companies will have to look for a new detail. Even if all of that information were used for simple marketing purposes, the invasion of your privacy would be significant. But many data collections end up becoming data breaches, leaving your future vulnerable to crimes like identity theft.

You deserve compensation for the bad and completely foreseeable effects of data mining. Contact us online today to talk about your options.

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