There’s a lot of talk about data mining at the moment – specifically about how it impacts the security of our personal or business information on the web. But even though opinion is divided on the merits and moral implications of data mining, it’s a field that is often misunderstood. Even Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, made his lack of data mining knowledge clear at a recent event at which the topic of focus was freedom of speech and data security. It’s certainly a topic that polarises opinion, and as data mining technologies improve and the practice becomes more widespread, it’s likely to become increasingly controversial. But what is the truth behind data mining, and how does this impact its future?
Data mining is not a new technology.
Although the term “Data mining” is relatively new, the technology is not. Marketers have been using customer data to inform their strategies for years, but the increasing development of the technology used for data collection, coupled with the proliferation of personal information stored online thanks to email, social networks and cloud technology, makes it a much more profitable practice. An article on UCLA’s Anderson School of Management uses the amusing example of an American grocery store chain that realised, through analysing supermarket scanner data and research reports, that men who bought diapers on Thursdays and Saturdays also typically bought beer. The analysis further revealed that these men typically did their weekly shopping on Saturdays and only purchased a few items on Thursdays – leading the retailer to conclude that the men were buying beer on Thursdays to have available for the weekend. The grocery chain then went on to use this new-found information in various ways to increase return on investment, such as moving the beer and diaper displays closer together. Modern data mining operates on a similar premise, but the volumes of data available, and the relative ease with which it can be accessed, means it is a much more valuable tool.
Don’t take data mining so personally.
Tim Cook’s speech at the EPIC Champions of Freedom awards dinner illustrates the most widespread misconception about data mining: “You might like these free services,” he said, “But we don’t think they’re worth having your email or your search history or now even your family photos data-mined and sold off for God knows what advertising purpose.” Cook’s assumption that any personal information gleaned through data mining will be used for ‘God knows what advertising purpose’ is revealing – many people seem to think that they might find themselves used as the unwitting subject of a TV commercial or their Facebook photos used in a magazine advertising campaign. The reality is much less exciting: customer information, more often than not, simply allows marketers to make more personalised purchase recommendations and cater to your specific shopping needs. His other critical misunderstanding is that the general public is perfectly happy with their data being seized by big corporates with marketing agendas. In fact, in a paper entitled “The Tradeoff Fallacy”, 91% of respondents disagreed that it would be fair for companies to collect information about them without their knowledge in exchange for a discount.
Data mining is more statistics than SkyNet
“So what is data mining?” Asks Meta S. Brown in her article on Forbes.com. “It’s statistics. In fact, it’s watered down statistics. If you took a college statistics class, you already have a general idea of what data mining can and can’t do. Data miners may have access to a wider range of analysis techniques than you encountered in Statistics 101, and nicer software to use, but they don’t have magic wands or x-ray vision for data. Data miners can only discover the facts written in the data, and some days, not even that.” In other words, data mining in itself doesn’t have the ability to abuse your personal information or use it in advertising or marketing “data lakes”. The real concern lies with what the marketers in question decide to do with your information once it’s in their databases. Just because it’s possible for marketers to access and exploit the most intimate details of your life doesn’t mean that they should, and this fault lies not within data mining itself, but in the way this data is used by those mining it.
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