The age of technology in which we are living has introduced numerous challenging philosophical and ethical issues regarding the relationship between the market and the notion of personal space and privacy rights. Much of our lives are lived and transacted through the medium of the Internet, and many of the activities that could once only be conducted in person in a physical place are now conducted in cyberspace. Users of the Internet and of other technological transaction instruments—ATMs, credit card machines, and cell phones, to name just a few—are vulnerable to the dissemination of their personal identifying information, and often without their knowledge or consent. Companies that track consumers’ habits, movements, and patterns collect this information and use it in various ways, from using it to customize and target advertising to selling it to third parties. While some of the uses and their implications are benign, others are not, and in either event, the issue of informed consent about the collection of private data remains troubling.
One begins to understand, at least on a superficial level, just how significant the potential of data-mining techniques is when one begins to monitor one’s own online habits. For the purposes of this assignment, I kept a log of all of the websites I visited in a single day, and even I was surprised by how much of a paper trail I was creating about myself. I was still more surprised by the fact that I could see how some of the information I was leaving behind with every keystroke was used to customize my online experience during my next visit to a particular site. Some of the sites that I visited on the day when I kept the log included the travel website www.expedia.com, the mega-online retailer,www.amazon.com, the movie rental site www.netflix.com, and the website for the bank where I have an account. In order to actually complete a transaction on all four of these sites, it is required that the user have an account. The account itself is free, but it does require the input of a significant degree of personal information: complete legal name, mailing address, phone number, e-mail address, credit card number (along with expiration date and security code), and a variety of data that are promised to serve to create layers of security for the users (such as mother’s maiden name, name of high school attended, city of birth, and the like).
I already had an account on all four of these sites, but because of this assignment, I was much more conscious of how my personal information and my past purchasing or site-visit habits affected my current experience. On expedia, my credit card information automatically appeared when I began to make a travel reservation. On Amazon, a menu of “recommended books" that were customized to my interests based on past purchases and books I’d viewed during previous visits was displayed prominently on the main page. Similarly, on Netflix, a list of recommended movies appeared on the main page, movies that had been selected especially for me based on my history of rentals. On the bank website, the user page had been modified, and even if I had previously selected that I did not want my personal information saved, my user name popped up automatically. These were just three out of numerous examples of a single day online. If this was the case for what Icould see, I imagine that the amount of information about me that is used to customize marketing messages, generate spam, etc.
This exercise raised my consciousness significantly about the way in which my personal information is used and for what purposes. When I began to read more about this process of data mining, I realized that it is much more sophisticated and complicated than even these three experiences might suggest. As Han and Kamber explain in their book Data Mining: Concepts and Techniques, data miners collect vast quantities of information about every single visitor to the Internet, as well as users of other electronic media. Credit cards and debit cards also serve as means for retailers and marketers to capture consumer information and create customized pitches for buyers. When these data are collected using sophisticated software, they are then sorted into many different types of information categories. Large retailers, in particular, have become particularly adept at determining precisely what types of information are relevant and valuable to them; this information is then warehoused for future use, the future being, at times, astonishingly quick, as on Amazon.
I feel uncomfortable with the fact that retailers collect such information about consumers. While I may very well like the books or movies that Amazon and Netflix recommend, and while the automatic appearance of my information may make my online experience faster, the fact that I do not retain control over whether I want these “conveniences" bothers me and makes me feel uneasy. While I am not generally an advocate of using the tool of legislation as a means of establishing and enforcing business values, standards, and practices, I am an advocate of businesses being more responsible so that such legislation is not necessary. I think that online users should have more choice about how their information is used, and I think that as a minimum standard of retailer behavior, online vendors—regardless of their industry—should have a prominently placed statement about how they use information and what privacy protections and options are available to users so that consumers can be more informed. I am also an advocate of consumers becoming more conscious about their own behavior and Internet use. Learning more about what data mining is, how it is used, and how to protect oneself from malevolent or intrusive data-mining practices is one step, and an empowering one, that can make a significant difference in this practice.