The ethical dilemma posed by data mining

Joseph Kukral , Op/Ed Editor

As technology continues to develop, companies are increasingly inclined to use it in sophisticated ways. The business practice of data mining and warehousing has become common as it has led to improvements in targeted marketing for many companies employing such techniques. Although the use of data analytics has become the norm for many companies, it has brought into focus the ethical implications of using such analytical methods. The foremost issue involved is the question of whether data analytics are an infringement on customer privacy.

Businesses are not alone in their pursuit of leveraging consumer information to obtain higher profits. Consider application developers, who daringly flirt with outright invasion of privacy as they design apps to collect and store intimate customer data, often without the knowledge and consent of the customers. According to the Center of Embedded Network Sensing, some cases involve the perpetual collection of location data using participatory sensing technology. For example, once a customer downloads a certain application, their mobile device is used as a sensor, recording all the places the customer goes as well as recording whom they pass on the street or who they engage in conversation. The information participatory sensing gleans from user behavior can then be analyzed to infer the daily and private habits of thousands of users. Furthermore, insofar as users remain unaware of such excessive data collection, nothing is done to prevent the abuse, as current laws and regulations are woefully inadequate to address the issue.

In addition to participatory sensing, another technique companies use to garner customer information is tracking cookies. As explained by the authors of “Business Ethics: A European Review” tracking cookies are often embedded in company websites and are designed to trace the clicking paths of users while they shop or search for products online. The technique yields considerable data about the preferences, beliefs and interests of the customer, which is then carefully mined to produce a detailed profile regarding their likely future behavior. Tracking cookies do not necessarily have to be used solely online, as companies also apply them in stores. From a nominal standpoint, the technique seems fairly innocuous.

However, consider the chilling instance when Target became aware of the pregnancy of a teen girl before her father did, as reported by Forbes. When pondering this odd circumstance, one must wonder if Target has clairvoyants working in its marketing department. Actually, the reason behind Target’s predictive ability is its elaborate use of data mining. Target assigns every customer a guest ID number, tied to their credit card, name or email address, which upon the purchase of items becomes a warehouse that stores a history of everything they have bought and any demographic information Target has collected from them. The use of data mining by Target is what permitted the teen girl to receive coupons for baby products when her father was still completely unaware of her pregnancy. Not only is the preemptive knowledge of her pregnancy creepy, but it again demonstrates the unchecked power of companies like Target to monitor the everyday activities and buying habits of its customers.

Furthermore, one has to consider how long data-mining companies retain this personal information in addition to its eventual exposure to third parties. It is very possible that companies carelessly advertise and sell such sensitive information to other buyers, eager to exploit it for their own profitable ends.

What should happen if the information mined by the original company is a misrepresentation of an individual customer’s behavior? Unfortunately, the customer has no control over the data, considering it is the proprietary asset of the original company. If it gets hacked or transmitted to some outside party, it could pose harm to the customer in many ways. First, the data could portray the individual in an unappealing light if it suggests some form of unsavory behavior, as indicated by their buying habits or daily activity. In the hands of a menacing individual, this information can pose a serious threat.

In addition, data pertaining to identity and credit information can be obtained by ill-designing parties or, even worse, criminals. The extensive use of data mining and warehousing by companies poses a significant and tangible threat to customers. Really, the practice is overtly in violation of privacy rights and is outright disturbing.

The growing use of data mining is having an insidious effect on the 21st century marketplace. In terms of political rights, it defaces the integrity of the Fourth Amendment, which protects the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” Furthermore, it exposes all customers to undue danger and harm. Its continued use is an ugly manifestation of egoist greed and the prioritization of the profit motive over the privacy rights of customers. One must wonder how long it will be until the practice of data mining will be exposed for its true and sinister purpose.