Data Mining and Privacy Concerns

Where you visit online seems to say a lot about you. Online privacy has been in the spotlight recently, as consumers come to terms with the reality that their online tracks define who they are to marketers and government agencies.  By studying this data, third parties can paint a picture about consumers—i.e., where they go, what they do, their preferences, and even any illegal conduct.  Now, data brokers can also compile and study large bodies of data to find patterns in behavior. While this carries huge potential for technological advancement, it also comes with greater threats to consumer privacy.

What Is Data Mining?

Data mining is the intricate process whereby data brokers collect, store, and study large sets of data for patterns.  The data includes everything from shopping habits, healthcare records, online practices, and public records (e.g., court and property records). This data is then used in a variety of fields, including intelligence gathering, statistics, database systems, and machine learning. Usually, data mining is used to compile lists for targeted marketing purposes—such as lists of diabetics, smokers, and political affiliations. However, recent reports indicate that data mining has been used to compile more personal lists—rape victims, addicts, and AIDS victims. The U.S. government has used data mining in various surveillance projects. These projects were ultimately terminated because of rising concerns that they violate the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. It is most shocking that the subjects never know they are victims to data mining. At a glance, most of these categories seem harmless. However, the underlying threat is that data brokers conduct mining projects without notifying consumers and without obtaining consent.

What Are the Potential Privacy Concerns Associated With Data Mining?

In its basic form, data mining does not carry any ethical implications. However, in application, this procedure has been used in a variety of ways that threaten individual privacy. For example, when the government uses data mining for national security purposes, it leads to several constitutional implications. Generally, individuals must receive notice that they will be subject to data mining in advance. Adequate notice includes the purpose of the project, who will have access to the data, how the data will be secured, and whether the data will be updated in the future. Furthermore, when data brokers store the information they gather, they run the risk that hackers will breach the database. There are serious cybersecurity concerns related to the storage of personal information.

The National Security Agency has protocols in place that require the destruction of irrelevant information in order to prevent breaches. However, a recent report by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board identified that this practice is rarely followed. The United States Congress has taken steps to secure privacy in certain areas of data mining. For instance, it passed the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act to protect privacy in medical records. Earlier this month, the Federal Trade Commission recommended that Congress also require that data mining ensure consumer control over their personal information. Meanwhile, Facebook is set to provide advertisers increased access to user data, such as browsing habits.

You may contact us to speak with an experienced and knowledgeable attorney to discuss data mining and the applicable privacy rights.