The Rise of Data Mining and Dataveillance

Data Mining and Dataveillance

Data mining and dataviellance are digital communication practices that have become more and more prevalent over the years. Data mining occurs when you make any sort of transaction (car purchase, ATM withdrawal, use discount card, use EZ Pass at a toll booth) and a digital record of that interaction is created. This information is then sent to companies that store massive amounts of information on individuals across the country. These companies take the stored information from the transactions and sort and organize it in order to create better marketing demographics. Companies as varied as Land’s End, Citigroup, and Allstate have all made use of these types resources for their marketing purposes. In his book, “No Place to Hide” Robert O’Harrow describes these companies by saying that they, “use computers and heaps of information about people to help marketers get to know individuals better.”

Dataveillance is similar to data mining because it makes use of large banks of information about millions of people, but it is related to surveillance. Dataveillance typically uses video cameras attached to computers that contain large data banks. The cameras can scan an individual and then run that person’s picture through the computer in order to view information about them. Law enforcement agencies can store information about known criminals and then attempt to match those criminals with images from surveillance equipment. Dataveillance can be used in busy shopping areas to spot criminals walking around, it can be used in toll booths to spot stolen vehicles or vehicles driven by known criminals, and it can even be placed in sports stadiums to see if any criminals are entering.

The problem with data mining and dataveillance is that while they are intended to aid marketers and law enforcement agencies, they often infringe upon peoples’ rights and make serious mistakes that can damage someone’s life or reputation.

The Problems With Data Mining and Dataveillance

Data mining and dataveillance seem like they could be very beneficial, and in fact they have been. It is no easy task for marketers to predict what customers want, but with the addition of data mining to their array of tools, they have been able to better accommodate their target markets. As Colin Shearer said in an article addressing the importance of programs that organize data from website CRM Today ( “A philosopher once wrote that finding the patterns in the randomness of life is the way we create beauty and make art. A similar statement could be made about analytics, which find patterns in the randomness of data so that you can discover valuable information and gain insight.”

Dataveillance is also a helpful tool for law enforcement. Police can’t be everywhere looking at everything, but a video camera can be. This is an important addition to fighting crime that cannot simply be written off because of the mistakes it has made. In the book “Surveillance, Dataveillance, and Personal Freedom” Nicholas Katzenbach and Richard W. Tomc say in an article that new dataveillance technologies, “are capable of dramatically reducing the incidence of crime.” The two authors also suggest that dataveillance and criminal data banks allow for police to quickly determine who someone is, what they have already done, who they know, and whether they own any weapons, which allows for police to no longer submit suspects to searches, long interrogations, or harassment in order to garner information. In the same book Donald R. Davis states, “Certainly, data collection is a necessary and proper aspect of police work, and it inures to the public good.” Without data banks and digital related surveillance tools the police would be handicapped. It is ridiculous to suggest that police and other areas of law enforcement should be subjected to a pre-digital age in which fighting crime would be more difficult and less successful.

The problem is that these benefits come with a cost. Privacy, creativity, personal freedom, and freedom of speech are often inhibited thanks to data mining and dataveillance’s far reaching grasp.

Greg Elmer, author of “Profiling Machines” shows numerous ways that data mining can damage personal freedoms. In his book he discusses how the continual growth of profiling has repeatedly cut down on the freedom and privacy of consumers, while at the same time it has become more familiar and commonplace. Elmer says that is the two main problems with data mining and dataveillance are that they lead to panopticism and a false reward system. In other words, the market is able to garner information without appearing to deny freedom or encroach on privacy.

Elmer places Foucault’s idea of panopticism into the world of consumer culture. He states that, “Foucault reminds us that the panopticon is a system of both light and language – a system of optic surveillance that is predicated on and reinforced by the documentation and distribution of personal information.” When discussing panopticism Foucault created the analogy of a guard tower in a prison that was used to keep the prisoners under control, not only by watching them, but also by keeping track of information about them. This information in turn was employed to further control the prisoners by convincing them that they were being watched even when they were not. For Elmer this theory applies to consumer profiling today. Marketing executives hope to control the markets they are a part of by collecting information on their customers. Elmer says that once this information is collected it is diagnosed and used to create consumer maps. These maps then act as information on what consumers want and show the market how to personalize itself. Elmer shows how this began with magazine questionnaires, moved on to barcodes, then magnetic strips in credit cards and discount cards, event marketing, and most recently cookies and online shopping.

For Elmer these advances have led to a loss of privacy and freedom. Panopticism is a theory connected to prison and thereby is turning the consumer culture into a prison where consumers are kept track of and then subjected to certain confinements. Markets are created based on already gathered information instead of allowing the consumer to make discoveries and purchases on his or her own. This panoptic style of marketing is kept in place thanks to a false system of rewards, which convince consumers to release information in exchange for discounts or a chance at prizes.

Elmer argues that while it may seem that a consumer is free to withhold information, the reality is that he or she is being punished for it. As Elmer states, “A distinguishing element of the sales transaction is the production and exchange of transaction – generated information (history of a consumer’s buying habits) in return for a financial rebate or a promise of reward.” What this means is that drug store discount cards are not required to purchase products in the drug store, so therefore a consumer is free to not divulge any personal information to the drug store, but if the person does not apply for a discount card they are subject to higher prices. Again this can be seen with event marketing. As Elmer points out, numerous companies will use contests as a form of promotion. While these contests seem to be free, they are eliciting information from entrants. Again there is a false sense of freedom that allows the consumer to believe that they are free to not enter, but at the same time they are then being punished by not being given an opportunity to win. If the consumer decides he or she wants to win, they must release at least some private information.

In both cases, discount cards and event promotion, freedom and privacy are being limited by punishing consumers who do not release personal information. Yet, consumers are becoming more familiar with these tactics and therefore do not realize that the soliciting of their personal information for marketing purposes is being hidden under the guise of a rewards system.
Robert O’Harrow, author of “No Place to Hide” describes other ways in which the use of data mining and dataveillance encroach upon our freedoms. He argues that while data mining and other panoptic forms of surveillance have been present and active in our culture for quite some time, they have been allowed even more access into our private lives because of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. O’Harrow fears that our privacy is being jeopardized for the sake of protection against future terror attacks. He points out that after September 11th legislation such as the Patriot Act, and government funding to programs such as biometrics and data mining, have aided in the expansion of profiling techniques that are frowned upon by both the FCC and the ACLU. As O’Harrow describes, “The most simple, anonymous transactions are now becoming datapoints on the vast and growing matrix of our lives.”

O’Harrow describes how companies such as Acxiom, Seisint, and ChoicePoint have been collecting massive amounts of information for years. These companies make a living off of storing information about individuals who are not being paid for this information. As O’Harrow explains Acxiom holds information on “roughly 200 million American adults,” and “It’s not just names, ages, addresses, and telephone numbersâÂ?¦ it’s marital status and families and the age of children. They tracked individuals estimated incomes, the value of their homes, the make and price of their cars. They maintain unlisted phone numbers and details about people’s occupations, religions, and ethnicities. They sometimes know what some people read, what they order over the phone and online, and where they go on vacation.”

Before September 11 these companies worked with advertisers and marketers in order to help them target their demographics, but now they also serve as terrorist hunting devices. While this may not sound like such a horrible objective, O’Harrow points out how the government is becoming more lenient on privacy laws in order to allow these companies to operate.

O’Harrow does not ignore the fact that surveillance cameras have reduced crime rates in certain areas, how missing children have been found, and how certain terrorist activities have been thwarted. But, at the same time O’Harrow is quick to point out the problems these data collection services create. People have been blocked from flights because they are listed as possible terrorists, identity theft is easier and easier to commit leaving people to wade through massive amounts of red tape just to get back money they did not even spend, insurance accounts have been wrongly labeled blocking people from the right to protect their home and other belongings, and in one extreme case a stalker paid a data collection company for information on a woman he would eventually murder. For O’Harrow no amount of good can outweigh the loss of privacy that data mining and surveillance create.

Like Elmer, O’Harrow sees that most of the problem is that people do not realize their information is being stored and sold. People do not realize that when they call a toll free number it is legal for information to be gathered on them. Most people also do not realize that since the 1970s products automatically require a warranty and that the warranty cards that come with products are not necessary to fill out. Companies are never clear about either of these so they can continue to garner information from customers. This is clearly, all though not by law, a violation of a person’s privacy. Information is being gathered without their knowledge, stored without their knowledge, and then sold without their knowledge. Who we are, what we do, and how we live has become a commodity exploited by data mining. Most people have no idea that they are constantly being tracked from purchase to purchase or flight to flight and O’Harrow sees a problem with this.

The government has begun funding companies who collect data while also producing laws that will aid those companies in their duties. At one point in time the Justice Department had a $67 million contract with ChoicePoint, a company that runs background checks. The Patriot Act even allows the government to tap into massive data mines such as banks, libraries, and email accounts run by Internet service providers. As O’Harrow suggests through out his book, information has become a commodity and it has only become easier to access since the attacks on September 11th.

As O’Harrow writes in his book, “More than ever before, the details about our lives are no longer our own. They belong to the companies that collect them, and the government agencies that buy or demand them in the name of keeping us safe.” The digital collection of information is infringing on our privacy and becoming eerily reminiscent of an Orwellian world. Data mining only aids this process by housing tons of information on us that includes everything from where we live and once lived to what we buy, what we drive, and how our credit is doing.

O’Harrow’s argument can also be linked to the “Law and Economics” school of copyright that Siva Vaidhyanathan discusses in his book “Copyrights and Copywrongs.” Vaidhyanathan explains that this school believes that, “values beyond material concerns” create inefficiency in copyright law. This means that members of the government and other organizations who seek to make a profit or stop terrorists see values such as the privacy of American citizens as ones beyond “material concerns” that will only lead to inefficiency. If the government did not allow data mining groups to gather all the information they do, terrorists would be more difficult to stop. What Vaidhyanathan and O’Harrow are both suggesting though is that values such as privacy in O’Harrow’s case, or fair use and freedom for innovation in Vaidhyanathan’s case, cannot be cast aside simply because they are deemed “inefficient.” Instead some sort of balance must be struck where by the government can regulate these systems without denying citizens of “values beyond material concerns.”

O’Harrow also sees how data mining and dataveillance can damage freedom and innovation. If a person is stopped from getting on a flight because his or her name matches that of a known terrorist than his or her freedom is being denied. If a person is not allowed to vote because his or her name matches a name on a list of convicted felons, then his or her freedom is being denied. If a person is arrested because a dataveillance system mistook him or her for a known criminal then his or her freedom is being denied. All of these problems are results of the work that computers do with all the digital information they have gathered on millions of Americans. Citizens should not be subject to a lack of freedom because a computer program that is supposed to help protect them makes mistakes.

Data mining and surveillance also stifle innovation much in the same way that copyright does. Because copyright laws are so broad and extensive people become afraid to use previously copyrighted materials or improve upon previously existing ideas. Much in the same way a country that feels like it is being watched by a panoptic system of surveillance and dataveillance will be more cautious and afraid to attempt certain things. Bands will be afraid to perform and re-create another band’s song live because surveillance equipment will pick up on it and inform the copyright holder, or students will be afraid to share copyrighted materials like books and CDs with other people because someone will see them doing it.

Dataveillance and data mining can also have serious psychological effects. Paranoia over panoptic surveillance is just one possible mental strain we may have to face. In “Surveillance, Dataveillance and Personal Freedom,” Arthur R. Miller suggests that, “In a computerized society those who control the recordation and preservation of personal data will have a degree of power over the individual that is at once unprecedented and subject to abuse.” Miller is suggesting that dataveillance techniques can ultimately lead to a new form of slavery, or a society that is basically imprisoned. In both cases we will be monitored without our consent and feel the mental anguish of know that someone else has access to information only we should, or maybe don’t even have ourselves.

Miller also discusses how certain groups have suggested placing tracking devices in ex-convicts to monitor them during parole. While this may seem like a good idea to keep track of where the convict is, Miller says that certain people are suggesting placing devices in the criminals to track their aggression levels. Again a person will be subjected to psychological torment, because the person being monitored will have to keep their anger under control even in non-criminal activities. If a criminal stubs their toe, they cannot yell, if someone attacks them, they cannot fight back. If they did, those monitoring them would arrive to take them back into custody.

Miller also points out how data mining and the creation of dossiers are unlawful and reminiscent of military and police forces infiltrating non-violent groups. But, as Miller suggests, the action being unlawful was only part of them problem. He says what may be worse is that, “the creation and exposure of dossiers on people who are politically active could deter them from exercising their right to assemble, speak freely, or petition the government.” Again the result of dataveillance and data mining can create a Big Brother like situation where people live in fear of offending the government. In the U.S. we have the right to protest and demand change, but if we are constantly being monitored and added to government blacklists our freedom is being inhibited.

Alternatives to Data Mining

With data mining and dataveillance already so strongly in place in our culture, and supported by the government, it would seem ludicrous to simply try and do away with it. Instead alternatives, or ways of coexisting with data mining that still protect our privacy and freedom are necessary. One of these alternatives is discussed in Howard Rheingold’s book, “Smart Mobs.”
In “Smart Mobs” Rheingold discusses wearable computers, most notably cyborg technology. In the book Steve Mann, a pioneer in cyborg technology, says that the goal of wearable computers should be, “the dignity of the individualâÂ?¦ allowing each and everyone one of us to control the environment that surrounds us.”

This comment makes cyborg technologies, which can even go so far as to block out ads from the sight of the user, seem in sharp contrast to the idea of data mining which keeps track of people as numbers and hopes to lump them together into a target market. Cyborg technology allows the user to have more control over what they want to see, not what marketers want them to see. It also allows the individual to live outside of the suggestive power of advertising and create a separate niche for them that is not easily categorized by marketers.

Another more obvious alternative is that in many cases data mining can simply be avoided. Yes, the lure of discounts at the drug store and not having to wait in line to drop change at a tollbooth are reason enough to let someone track your transactions, but you can avoid these situations. People can even simply conduct more shopping with cash instead of credit cards, they can no fill out warranty cards, and they can delete cookies on their computers.

Some of these actions may seem a bit ridiculous or paranoid, but it is more important to know that things that we perceive as merely being conveniences or rewards are not actually made simply to be beneficial to us. We need to realize that we are provided with the rights to maintain our privacy and withhold our personal information. Because of this an alternative to data mining and dataveillance may not simply be another technology, but instead a better education about the system that is already in place, so people know what they are doing when they make certain transactions. The small print has been small for far too long, instead people need to know that if they take part in a certain transaction their information is being provided to a company that will in turn sell it someone else and that they have a choice to not participate in this system of information leaking.

An alternative for dataveillance cameras may simply be a machine that is more accurate and less video related. People do not enjoy the feeling of being watched, or the panoptic backlash that comes from surveillance cameras. Perhaps instead technology such as retina scanners could be used in an area to find criminals. This way the results would be more accurate and people would not be watched by cameras, but simply scanned.

The Future of Data Mining and Dataveillance

While data mining and dataveillance may already seem to raise a number of ethical questions, they will only become more numerous in the future. In his book “No Place to Hide” Robert O’Harrow discusses some of the new developments in the field of dataveillance and data mining, including implants that can be placed under the skin.

These implants can be helpful to act as a key to one’s house, a credit card, an ID, or even an EZ Pass. The issue that has to be considered though is whether these devices will only be monitored when they are being used. In other words the implant can create a more convenient and time efficient lifestyle, but will the implant only be on when in use? If a company gains the rights to track these devices to see where a certain demographic goes for vacation, or where they shop, that person’s privacy will be invaded. Someone can literally know where you are at any given moment.

O’Harrow also brings up new tracking devices that can aid in dataveillance. These devices are becoming smaller and smaller as microchip technology gets better and better. Right now tracking devices already exist that are so small that hundreds of them can be fit in a prescription pill bottle. Again while these devices can aid in the pursuit of criminals, they also raise a number of issues. With devices this small that are almost unnoticeable a panoptic type of paranoia can set in on the public who will not be sure if one of these devices is in their car, their house, or even placed somewhere on them. Also privacy will be infringed yet again because these devices can be used for unsolicited tracking or data mining purposes.

Data mining and dataveillance will only increase in the future. We are a society that has become more and more computer friendly and more accustomed to paying through credit card than cash. We will only be participating in more and more traceable transactions in the future. Even now, waving a wand can pay for gas, people can order delivery food through the internet, and false rewards systems keep both credit card and discount card users coming back for more. Maybe as our culture develops into one that is more digital we will no longer hold the same values. Personal information may no longer be a private issue, but instead knowledge that is readily available to anyone.

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