Data Mining for Gold: The Value of Information
Data mining is the digital process of sorting through large pools of data to establish relationships and identify patterns. Every post, search, and page visit is taken into account in data mining. The purpose of this process is to determine what advertisements are most relevant to a user, as determined by their browsing habits. However, data mining doesn’t just happen online. Every time a customer swipes a store loyalty card, switches phone companies, contacts customer service, etc., this data is collected and analyzed. When does data mining go beyond the realms of smart business and become a violation of privacy? A case built around Facebook mogul, Mark Zuckerberg, asks this question.
On April 12, Zuckerberg finished the final of two days of questioning on Capitol Hill, after news broke that Facebook’s involvement with Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm based in the United Kingdom, led to the misuse of information of 87 million accounts, targeting users with political ads. The ads were used for the U.K. Brexit campaign and on behalf of the Trump campaign during the 2016 United States presidential election. Allegedly, the information obtained by Cambridge Analytica was acquired in a manner that violated Facebook’s policies. Although Facebook reportedly told Cambridge Analytica to destroy the data, the information was never eradicated. However, Cambridge Analytica claims the data was obtained legally and that it did wipe the offending information.
The ordeal brings to light all the ways in which American citizens voluntarily – and involuntarily – hand companies vital information about themselves and, unwittingly, their friends and family. For example, when a person connects with an app through a site such as Facebook, that app has the potential to monitor your friends list in addition to what you post. In the best-case scenario, targeted ads based off this information sell a product and make a company money. In the worst-case scenario, this information is used to infiltrate democratic elections.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also questions whether or not Facebook violated consent measures by failing to notify users of data collection and how the stored information is shared. It is important to note that Facebook is not the only questionable entity in light of data mining. Any social media platform and any search engine, including Google, which does not require a payment or subscription service, stores the information and habits of its users, because information is the only other way they will make money. Google even goes so far as to monitor a person’s location through their mobile device if location services are turned on. While investigating the depths of social media’s data collection, web developer Dylan Curran discovered that Google has the equivalent of 3 million electronic documents worth of information stored, and Facebook has considerably less, at 400,000. Google tracked every search he’d made since 2009, as well as the events in his calendar (whether he attended them or not).
While users have the ability to opt out of these collection and monitoring practices, many don’t realize they’re being surveilled in the first place. Furthermore, these platforms don’t make their opt-out options known or obvious. While users have a responsibility over the information they share, they also have the right to not only know what their information is being used for but what type and how much of their information is being used.
Zuckerberg’s hearing introduced the idea of regulatory legislation so that tech giants such as Facebook are held accountable at a greater scale. While Zuckerberg appeared resistant to the proposal, it may be where social media in the U.S. is heading. As for now, social media and search engines remain largely unregulated, and the data that users provide continues to shape the way corporations engage with consumers.