Caught in the Data Mine

This is a slightly modified version of an article that appeared in Huffingtonpost.com on Dec. 19, 2013

Invasion of privacy became a national concern in the Watergate era. Now, 40 years later, it’s back again–moving at warp drive. The first time around it was J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon, roaming the halls of government, grabbing whatever private information they could find to attack their political foes. But even then it was clear that invasion of privacy was really a two-part problem. The issue isn’t just that a snooper might decide to grab some sensitive information. It’s equally important to consider what kind of sensitive information is being generated and how it could become so vulnerable.

Protecting the right of privacy has been a passion of mine ever since the Watergate era.

And when the next wave hits, it will be far worse. Technology continues to be the ally of the snooper. Future privacy-invaders will not only be more efficient in getting what they want, they will be much better able to cover their tracks. Informational systems used to have built-in limitations: the very bulk of the material maintained in the system imposed practical limitations on what an individual snooper could glean from the files. But the computer is rapidly depriving us of all that protection. At the same time we are increasing the personal information in public and private data banks, we are expanding geometrically the accessibility of that information to those who are bent on misusing it.


That paragraph is taken from my book Low Profile: How to Avoid the Privacy Invaders, which was published thirty-two years ago in 1981. I wrote it with the Nixon administration in mind, but the same paragraph could apply today to the NSA and its seemingly out-of-control band of snoopers.

By almost any measure there has been a massive shift in power over the last thirty years away from private individuals and into the hands of those who would keep tabs on them. The political decision to increase surveillance in the wake of the 9/11 attacks has played a big role in this. But the vulnerability of private individuals to surveillance is also due in part to the nature of new technologies themselves, such as the internet and email, which leave an inevitable trail of electronic data in their wake. And to that you need to add the increased willingness of many people to share personal data through social media, coupled with the vague hope that the information will not be misused.

But the most gratuitous threat to personal privacy may be the mountain of information being accumulated by high-tech marketers through their relentless data-mining. These company data-bases continue to grow with Borg-like momentum, slicing and dicing the personal tastes, movements, and habits of their customers. Even individuals who ordinarily think they have nothing to hide have reason to fear this kind of relentless information gathering. Dossiers of personal behavior gleaned from many bits of information can produce false information, faulty cross-references, and misleading or incomplete impressions. They can lead to leaks of private financial or medical information, and this can lead to extortion or fraud. According to the N.Y. Times, the state of New York is currently investigating firms that gather information from unsuspecting borrowers and then pass it on to unscrupulous payday lenders. Widespread information-gathering presumably gives the company a competitive advantage in dealing with advertisers, but it also provides a rich source of information that can be misused by surveillance teams, hackers, con artists, disgruntled employees, and others who can get their hands on it.

Ever since the Snowden affair, the high-tech giants that gather this data have been going through a parody of the five stages of grief–first surprise, then a touch of evasion, then a hint of denial, and finally grudging acceptance, as they sheepishly admitted that government agencies had access to the massive databases they had been accumulating. The only law that seems to apply in this situation is a variation on Murphy’s Law: If information can be abused, it will be abused.
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Even apart from their role as hunter-gathers for the surveillance state, the big, data-mining marketers have created a situation that can ultimately be harmful to their customers. Extensive data-mining is almost entirely for the company’s benefit–and not, as the company’s often claim, to enhance the customer’s experience.  People who buy an occasional product from a website usually experience an onslaught of ads, profiling the buyer as someone who will want any number of only vaguely similar products. And sometimes technological changes in the products themselves provide a rich source of data-mining. Although on-line booksellers can track in detail your purchases of print books, the purchase of an e-book provides a much richer source of data that allows the seller to track your movements through every page of the cloud-based electronic book. According to a July 13, 2013 article in the N.Y. Times, customer-tracking has now leaped the gap between on-line and in-store sales, as larger retailers have started pushing phone apps that will allow management to track customers throughout a store, observe the places where they stop and browse, and then pursue them with a constant stream of marketing efforts. More recently, mega-retailers have been combining data-mining and dynamic pricing to increase the cost to consumers, using customers’ own browsing history against them. To put it simply, according to Marketplace.org, the more you visit a website to look at a specific product the higher the price may be when you return. If the data in the company’s computer system shows that you want something — maybe really want it — the computer also knows it can probably raise the price when you come back to buy it.

How do you deal with this? In a previous article I suggested that Shopping is Political. The simple act of buying things for personal or family use has ramifications that go beyond any particular purchase. That’s true in dealing with mega-retailers and their data-mining tactics. Each person will have his or her own level of comfort level. How much information are you willing to give up to get what you need? What does a company say about its privacy policy? Is there a human being there that you can trust? Is this a sensitive purchase or not? Do you need to buy the item on-line or make the purchase some other way? No one can live completely off the grid. If you never use a credit card, you can probably never rent a car, check into a hotel room, or fly in a plane. In fact, even making a strenuous effort to live off the grid would probably brand you as someone who needs further surveillance. Somewhere–probably midway between living in isolation and living in the data mine–there is a balance point for each of us.
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What’s the next likely battle ground over data-mining?
Well, imagine this scene: that cute little drone carrying a package squeezes past your neighbor’s trees, tiptoes through the power lines, checks the posters on your front lawn, measures the pathway down your side alley, zooms past your aged aunt gripping her walker, fends off the family terrier, hovers over your child on his tricycle, pauses over the plants on your back porch, lingers near the license plate on your car, eases by your bedroom window, and finally deposits its package on your back steps.
And then ask yourself this: how do the few bucks you’ve saved on that case of toilet paper stack up against the value of the information that your little sky-borne visitor has just sent back to headquarters?