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Privacy The Internet Your Rights Online

What Data Mining Firms Know About You 141

storagedude writes "Time writer Joel Stein spent three months learning what data mining companies know about him. After learning everything the companies had profiled about him (some of it inaccurate) — social security number, age, marital status, religion, income, debt, interests, browsing and spending habits — he had a surprising reaction: complacency. '... oddly, the more I learned about data mining, the less concerned I was. Sure, I was surprised that all these companies are actually keeping permanent files on me. But I don't think they will do anything with them that does me any harm. There should be protections for vulnerable groups, and a government-enforced opt-out mechanism would be great for accountability. But I'm pretty sure that, like me, most people won't use that option. Of the people who actually find the Ads Preferences page — and these must be people pretty into privacy — only 1 in 8 asks to opt out of being tracked. The rest, apparently, just like to read privacy rules."
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What Data Mining Firms Know About You

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 11, 2011 @03:19PM (#35456476)

    I don't trust any company is goal is to make a profit. Full stop.

    • by adonoman ( 624929 ) on Friday March 11, 2011 @03:31PM (#35456596)
      Trust doesn't necessarily come into play. I expect corporations to make money off of me. I'd rather they do that by presenting me with ads I'm interested in. I trust them not to steal my identity insofar as if they're already breaking the law, adding new laws isn't going to change anything. Last year I got a great deal on my laptop because whatever profiling they were doing decided that I was in the market for a laptop. Instead of paying $1000 for a $1000 laptop like I was planning, I got a $2500 laptop for $1000. As far as Im concerned it was win-win - I got a great laptop, and they got my money.
      • One of the main concerns isn't if the company itself is stealing your information, but how securely are they keeping your information?

        Trust comes into play when a company is keeping all this sensitive information, but is not competent of the security measures it should be taking to protect it's (my) data from malicious intrusions.

      • Oh, contraire. Trust is everything. Even if you trust a corporation not to directly misuse information they have on you, do you trust them to keep it safe? Or might they sell it to others without your knowledge, who you don't know whether to trust or not? Or trust them not to be hacked, and have your information fall into hands you definitely shouldn't trust?
      • by Mandrel ( 765308 )
        I'd be interested to know whether you'd already used non-ad info to pick out a laptop model, and just used the ad to get a good price and vendor, or whether the ad influenced your choice of laptop.
        • I had resigned myself to buying a $1000 piece of plastic from Dell, until I saw the ad. With a confluence of a bunch of coupons I ended up getting a Lenovo W700. Having used the T-series laptops at work for a while, I went with that instead.
          • by Mandrel ( 765308 )

            Thanks for the info. The ad offered a good price on a range you knew about from work.

            I'm just thinking that if there were no ads would you have still considered that option, and would you have been able to find a good & cheap vendor from a search-engine search or a price-comparison site; and if you weren't already familiar with the model, without ads would there still be good places to read up about them?

            • I had already looked, but decided that it was out of my range - the ad happened to have a coupon code in it though.
      • by Mitreya ( 579078 )
        Instead of paying $1000 for a $1000 laptop like I was planning, I got a $2500 laptop for $1000. As far as Im concerned it was win-win - I got a great laptop, and they got my money.

        Although I am all for targeted ads, but it is a lot more likely that you have paid $1000 for a $1200 or even a $900 laptop. Shockingly, few retailers are willing to sell items at less than 50% of their price. Not unless they triple the retail price first.

        • I don't think anyone would call a new Lenovo W700 a $1000 laptop. I just happened on a confluence of separate deals at once. They're still going for $1200 used on ebay.
      • by davester666 ( 731373 ) on Friday March 11, 2011 @11:52PM (#35461044) Journal

        No, you got a $1000 laptop for $1000, but through the magic of marketing, you believe the value of the laptop to be $2500.

    • by Toe, The ( 545098 ) on Friday March 11, 2011 @03:41PM (#35456706)

      The threat isn't what they are going to do with your data; it is the potential that it presents.

      Sure, there is no reason why they are going to one day say, "Hey! Let's look at So-and-so's record and see what we can do to him as a result."

      However, what can happen is that one day you become a "person of interest" to someone somewhere for some reason (quite possibly entirely by mistake). Then you can expect that that entity is going to buy all the data they can on you and sift through every detail of it.

      And don't forget that once this data exists, it pretty much never goes away. Terabytes are incredibly cheap these days, and data companies most likely invest in lots of backup and redundancy.

      P.S. For kicks, also think about what may happen if such a company gets hacked. Enjoy.

      • P.S. For kicks, also think about what may happen if such a company gets hacked. Enjoy.

        is this greater or less than the risk of someone stealing your wallet, or breaking into your house and stealing your things?

        I guess what it means is that the people who should be most worried about this stuff is those with the most to hide. Nothing wrong with that either, just trying to put some meaning into it.

        I mean, its not like we have a choice. Either live like a hermit, in which case your quality of life suffers, or risk having your data stolen (albeit, a very small risk) at which point your quality

    • not surprised that he writes for TIME, that learned journal. but telling us not to worry makes him an asshole, as well.

      *

      how can you be complacent learning that companies you don't do business with are keeping records on you of who you've done business with, and also knowing that hackers can hack into anything they want? "here's a good target: that company who keeps databases with all the information on everybody."

    • Even if they want to sell you stuff you can actually use? I'd rather get fed ads for products I'd buy than ads for products I have no interest in at all.

    • by LibRT ( 1966204 )
      If you sell your labor/knowledge/etc, then you are aiming to make a profit. That's no different than a company (which, like soylent green, is made of people). So I presume by your (goofily-worded) logic, you don't trust yourself?
  • Opt Out? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 11, 2011 @03:22PM (#35456502)

    Dear Hitler, I'm Jewish and I would like to opt-out of your anti-semitism movement. Thanks!

  • by Locke2005 ( 849178 ) on Friday March 11, 2011 @03:23PM (#35456516)
    They know that I am female, 16, blond, my email address is billg@microsoft.com, and that I might not always be completely truthful in filling out web forms!
    • by Anonymous Coward

      They know that I am female, 16, blond, my email address is billg@microsoft.com, and that I might not always be completely truthful in filling out web forms!

      the sentence you wrote tells a lot about you already. :)

    • I too have a strange passion for filling in web forms with the most outrageous options available.

      I am often a 110 year old woman from Mongolia.

    • I might not always be completely truthful in filling out web forms!

      That doesn't help you much. If you are a real adult with a mortgage, credit card, a deed, and some other public records, they can sell all of that "real world" information about you.

      Sure, I'm a 14 y.o. girl who likes ponies. But I'm also a guy with a house and a job that creates a public trail. It's just a matter of time till they can merge the two.

      • Sure, I'm a 14 y.o. girl who likes ponies. But I'm also a guy with a house and a job that creates a public trail. It's just a matter of time till they can merge the two.

        You might want to be a bit careful. The way things are going, you're liable to get arrested for talking to yourself.

    • I might not always be completely truthful in filling out web forms!

      Indeed. The truth is that you're actually a blood elf female over the age of consent who just happens to share Bill Gates's email address. Which means you've got a nice set of...ears and I would totally hit that.

      (I've considered opting out of those profile-cookie-things, but some of the demogs they've lumped me in are so horribly wrong, that from what Google et al. tell me opting out would probably bring them closer to knowing the real me

  • by Baseclass ( 785652 ) on Friday March 11, 2011 @03:25PM (#35456532)

    Of the people who actually find the Ads Preferences page — and these must be people pretty into privacy — only 1 in 8 asks to opt out of being tracked.

    That's probably because people who are into privacy know that opting out will most likely show up in somebody else's DB as another data point, i.e. somebody who's concerned about privacy.

    Personally I'm more comfortable using no script, adlock plus, proxies, etc.

    • by thebra ( 707939 ) on Friday March 11, 2011 @03:29PM (#35456574) Homepage Journal
      Exactly, opting out is basically saying "Yes, I do exist and am who you think I am."
    • by rwa2 ( 4391 ) *

      Um, isn't Joel Stein the guy who does the comedy sketch on the very last page of TIME?

      Um, yeah.

    • Maybe it's my internet marketing background, but when I read about a 12% conversion rate of interested people reaching a page, I don't think "hey, these people don't want to opt out," I think "hey, this website has some serious usability issues."

      Here's what I experienced: Found the opt out page [networkadvertising.org], hit select all, and clicked submit to opt out. I was taken a page with ~50 little messages saying "You have successfully opted out from this network." It wasn't until I scrolled down to the very bottom (passed all t

  • by Shoten ( 260439 ) on Friday March 11, 2011 @03:26PM (#35456540)

    The problem isn't what the data mining companies would do with the data, themselves. I don't think it's even with what companies who buy their services would do, frankly...although I know that on Slashdot that may not be a widely-held or even popular belief. What's dangerous is that the data mining companies also provide data to the government. And why is that? Because the data mining companies collect and compile data that our government is forbidden from collecting directly without having to get legal authorization (like a warrant, for example). It's a workaround that circumvents controls meant to protect the privacy of individuals from their own rulers. Of course, I'm speaking from the perspective of someone in the USA; when it comes to civil rights, your mileage may vary.

    • by maxume ( 22995 )

      Is there documentation that the government is buying this data?

      A FOIA request should at least be able to get the purchase authorizations.

    • You might have some of that backwards, actually.

      What's dangerous is that the data mining companies also provide data to the government

      In some cases, these firms are actually getting data from the government. I don't exist on facebook, twitter, myspace, linkedin, or any other social networking site. Yet at least one of these companies has a fair bit of information on me that they are showing off to the public; my full name, my approximate age, my physical address, my marital status, the number of people in my house, etc. I've also never had a land line in my house, so there was no way to

    • by al0ha ( 1262684 )
      To me the real danger in all of this is that the data compiled, and that is continued to be compiled, will now live on indefinitely. Data to which any entity can return to use for any reason at any time in the future.

      People are so freaking selfish - all anyone is considering is themselves. What about future humans? Will future generations oppressed due to the data that lives in the machines curse our generation for being so complacent?

      Bottom line is nobody knows, or could even begin to understand,
    • by Yvanhoe ( 564877 )

      What's dangerous is that the data mining companies also provide data to the government.

      Oh really ? If the government wants to know about you, it has access to police files, medical records, banking accounts. I would be very worried that the other way around happen : government giving information to companies about my medical conditions, the car I own, my water consumption, etc..

      Right now, I think that data mining companies know about me about the same thing I would tell to any person willing to drink a beer with me and to hear the boring story of my life : age, education, hobbies, occupatio

      • by epyT-R ( 613989 )

        most adults also seem to forget that their social structures are hardly more developed than they were in high school. cliques, cliches, stereotypes, and fallacies abound, especially when individuals in a group make judgements about a potential recruit (say a new employee). this is why personal information should be in the control of the person who it belongs to.

    • by npsimons ( 32752 ) *

      The problem isn't what the data mining companies would do with the data, themselves. I don't think it's even with what companies who buy their services would do, frankly...although I know that on Slashdot that may not be a widely-held or even popular belief. What's dangerous is that the data mining companies also provide data to the government.

      What's that quote I've seen on slashdot? Something along the lines of "in Soviet Russia, government controls the commmerce." Excuse me for sounding like a liberal dou

      • by epyT-R ( 613989 )

        corporations can't (yet) imprison you against your will.. they still have to expend rather large amounts of resources to convince the government to do so. piss off the right government official however, and your life is over. I'd say both are two sides of the same shitty coin. combined is where the real toxicity to freedom comes from.

  • by thebra ( 707939 ) on Friday March 11, 2011 @03:26PM (#35456544) Homepage Journal
    I'm am shocked by this. Everyone has done such a great job keeping their personal information private. Not using a SSN when unnecessary, not filling out random forms on the internet with personal information to win a free iPod. And everyone is smart with the type of information they post on social networking sites. I just don't see how this type of business model could even exist!
    • by Anonymous Coward

      ... not filling out random forms on the internet with personal information to win a free iPod.

      Fill out this form to receive a free Ipod

      Name:
      SSN
      Bank Info
      Address

      • Name: ELVIS PRESLEY
        DOB: 08 Jan 1935
        SSN: 409-52-2002
        Address: Elvis Presley Boulevard
        Memphis, TN 38116 (Graceland)
        DL # 2571459

        Real info works much better than any fake stuff you could make up!
  • The question shouldn't be what they know, but rather how they know it. I looked myself up on one of the better known data mining sites and I was surprised at how much they knew about me. They had my address, my (approximate) age, my marital status, the number of people in my house, and a few other things that don't come to mind for me immediately.

    However, they came up with all of that without using facebook (as I don't have a facebook account) or a phone book (as we have never had a land line at our hou
    • by maxume ( 22995 )

      Do you have credit or bank accounts?

    • They do get a lot of information from the Government.
      Property records.
      Court Records, criminal
      Court Records, civil [marriage, divorce, etc]
      They do get a lot of information from the Government.
      Property records.
      Court Records, criminal
      Court Records, civil [marriage, divorce, Probate, etc]

      All of this is, and has always been, public informa

  • I have no problem with them having my info (after all, it's gun ownership, not laws, that protect us from the rise of Hitler in our country). And if I have to see ads I prefer targeted ones.

    But what happens if one of these companies gets hacked and, as a result, someone uses my name and ssn for things that harm my credit score? My company's human resources department is scared stiff about accidentally disclosing that type of info in a security breech. And I imagine the same is true for companies who have it

    • Things have gotten so bad I'm wearing security breeches and suspenders!

      • by c0lo ( 1497653 )

        Things have gotten so bad I'm wearing security breeches and suspenders!

        It's getting expensive already, eh?

        "You were private by default and public by effort. Nowadays, you're public by default and private by effort," says Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation,

    • by maxume ( 22995 )

      Better would be laws that made it more difficult for banks and other financial institutions to try to hold a third party responsible when they are the victims of fraud.

      The really nice thing about such laws is that someone having your name and "secret" number probably wouldn't be able to use it to open an account, so it wouldn't be such a problem that the number isn't at all a secret.

    • "after all, it's gun ownership, not laws, that protect us from the rise of Hitler in our country"

      I'd argue that guns have little to do with this, as does user information. In Nazi Germany, people were misled into thinking they were in the right. The Germans aren't/weren't evil people. They are people like everywhere else, and people are easily manipulates/misled. That's why the "fair and balanced" media scares me. All you have to do to get people to comply with unspeakable horrors is convince them they

    • by c0lo ( 1497653 )

      And more importantly, we need laws that help track down the source of identity theft so I can hold such companies accountable. Something like any company who collects personal information on American citizens must register with some federal bureau and list what they collect. Victims of identity theft should be able to request what information any company in the list has on them, as well as a list of when, how, and to whom it was disclosed.

      Yeap, definitely. Is a win-win situation: an overzealous bureaucrat (say, in "Homeland security dept"?) will know where to go for extra information on you without spending too much of your tax.
      Except... it may be you to spend your money on lawyers - if you'll be permitted to have one - but the govt and data miners will be in the win.

  • start covertly using this data. They could do large amounts of damage "We're sorry, you eat fast food 4 days a week. You get charged a lard ass surcharge. Sure you only weight 170 lbs, but you're still at risk..."
    • It's more like the government will begin levying penalties on non-complying individuals. "You eat meat so you hurt the environment" - extra tax. "You aren't in a union so you hurt your fellow workers" - extra tax to compensate those less fortunate. You left out the part where the data is accurate. Eating frequently at fast food is correlated with health problems. Hostility to unions is correlated with conservatism. Both are destructive to our country and should receive corrective action by the governm
      • by skids ( 119237 ) on Friday March 11, 2011 @03:58PM (#35456918) Homepage

        It's funny how some people rage against the government for being less efficient than the private sector (which it is not) and then turn around and get paranoid about how this supposedly inept bunch of keystone cops is going to pull off some incredibly complex fascist task.

        • There you go, trying to use logic again.

        • by epyT-R ( 613989 )

          government doesn't need to be efficient to pull off a fascist state. it just needs the right leadership and sufficient time.

        • by maxume ( 22995 )

          He's either doing some sort of performance art or completely serious about such a scheme being a good thing.

        • It's funny how some people rage against the government for being less efficient than the private sector (which it is not) and then turn around and get paranoid about how this supposedly inept bunch of keystone cops is going to pull off some incredibly complex fascist task.

          Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

          - Robert J. Hanlon

      • by maxume ( 22995 )

        I think even the most rabid authoritarian would be happy to tax the meat without worrying too much about who eats it.

        • by c0lo ( 1497653 )

          I think even the most rabid authoritarian would be happy to tax the meat without worrying too much about who eats it.

          Why stop there, if you can squeeze more from the same meat, without a sweat?
          You see, there's a "justification" for that: use the meat together with fats and its becoming "unhealthy". The same with smoking. I'm sure the tobacco farmers pay their taxes and the ciggies manufacturer pays much more only because they produce something for "slow self poisoning - resulting in increased cost the social health services" (not that the extra collected money are guaranteed to be used for public health services anyway).

  • by medv4380 ( 1604309 ) on Friday March 11, 2011 @03:46PM (#35456758)

    But I don't think they will do anything with them that does me any harm

    Which part about social security number, age, marital status, religion, income, debt, interests, browsing and spending habits did he not understand. All that info would give someone a sure fire way to steal their identity.

  • Sure, I was surprised that all these companies are actually keeping permanent files on me. But I don't think they will do anything with them that does me any harm.

    Okay, Mr. Stein, let's assume that all those companies have your information, and won't do anything nefarious with it.

    Now, how many of those companies do you think actually keep that information secure? At how many of those companies could you just walk off with data? How many would allow you to view this data with an afternoon's worth of craft

  • by Locke2005 ( 849178 ) on Friday March 11, 2011 @03:49PM (#35456772)
    Data mining companies have already deduced from your slashdot ID's that you're probably still a virgin!
    • by thebra ( 707939 )

      Data mining companies have already deduced from your slashdot ID's that you're probably still a virgin!

      Shhhh...don't tell my wife ;)

  • From mining my slashdot account, one would conclude that I talk about porn... a lot. But what the data mining doesn't account for is that, like most of my posts, it is in the context of trying to make a joke and get a +1 Funny mod.
    • Perhaps. But I see from your facebook page, you're really not that funny.
      :P
      • The jokes on you... I don't even have a Facebook page!
        • ... I am female, 16, blond, my email address is billg@microsoft.com

          Wait! That's not you?!!

          --
          And batshit-crazy people without guns bite!

          • I meant the sig to be a joke about batshit-crazy people, but after posting I realized it probably looks like an anti-gun comment about your sig, which I did not intend it to be.

            I get your sig that it's the bs-c people.

  • I for one thought it was a very interesting article. I encourage you all to actually read it.

    I particularly liked the part about Google's separation of data. Its an interesting look at the way that company, who's efforts are all funded by our personal data, is run. Nice peek inside a world I wouldn't get to see otherwise.

    Actually a random thought just occurred to me, if everyone was as concerned about privacy as slashdotters, would Google still have been successful enough to launch Android? Without personal

  • I don't bother opting out of web sites, because quite frankly I can't even count how many web sites that might be, and I can count pretty high. Nor do I want to spend the rest of my life filling out those forms. Nor is there any semblance of a guarantee that any of these web sites honor these opt out requests. Can you take them to court if they violate it? How would you even know if they violated it? What's needed is some intelligent laws, and some accountability. If I could go to a government web site
    • ... and I can count pretty high.

      Maybe it has to do with my starting point...

      Aleph-Null bottles of beer on the wall, aleph-null bottles of beer...
      take one down and pass it around, Aleph-Null bottles of beer on the wall.
      ...

  • It's not what they know about me that is true that bothers me. It is what they know about me that isn't true. Ultimately, the problem with this type of database is not that they know too much about people (although there are significant problems with that as well), it s what they "know" about people that is false that causes problems.
  • As others have commented, I too don't like how easily they can get information that could be used to steal my identity, nor do I trust how well they would protect my information. I think all that just makes it that much easier for criminals to get the same information.

    But mostly, I just feel saddened that so many resources are being used to try to separate me from $10 here or $100 there to funnel into corporate profits, rather than being used to better educate children, or help with medical research. Thin

  • It is the thieves. Lackadaisical security + credit card number on file = massive fraud.

    I worked for a company whose billing department kept an .XLS with their customers SSN and billing information on a public share drive. The billing people just didn't care. But it wasn't the billing department that was going to commit the fraud - it was some other random untraceable person who stumbles onto the share drive.

    • by epyT-R ( 613989 )

      the point being that such security is impossible to enforce across the board, so the only answer is to prevent companies from collecting it in the first place. they may keep it for the duration of a sale/service rendering until receipt of payment.. after that they must delete.. something like that.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    So, someone who has chosen to spend their career in the public view, often expressing personal opinions and anecdotes in what they hope will be a widely read press doesn't have a problem with people knowing a lot about him. Big shock!

    There are those of us out there, however, who don't feel the need to broadcast our navel gazing (at least with our names attached to it) - perhaps we might have a different opinion on how happy one should be with this amount of private information being known...

  • The biggest down side to this type of data aggregation is that it won't lead to decreased advertisements directed at people that either, completely ignore all adds, or never/infrequently purchase anything advertised to them.
  • Okay, unusual situation. I'm transgendered. While my legal name change wont be in effect till next month I have used facebook and other sites like that to create a history for my new name rather then having it look like i was suddenly someone else. They want data, i feed them crap. Hope they are happy.

  • Isn't this the same issue raised here http://yro.slashdot.org/story/11/03/09/1332202/Ask-Slashdot-Privacy-Paranoiaare [slashdot.org] we going to start dismissing the value of privacy twice a week now?

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