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Big Data Comes Wrapped in Big Danger

Big business calls it Data Mining.  Consumers think of it as an invasion of privacy.  Cyber-criminals look at it as an opportunity to line their pockets.  What it boils down to is the fact that as you surf the web it leaves digital breadcrumbs that people will scoop up in an effort to make money.  If this bothers you, then you need to be aware of how your browsing habits can be used against you as well as what you need to do to minimize the electronic trail you leave every time you go online.

We have all heard about the hacking of big box retailer Target with the resulting loss of 40 million credit card numbers.  However, what you may not be aware of is the fact the FBI is warning companies that deal in terabytes of consumer data that 2014 is shaping up to be a year fraught with peril. Many large companies are expected to be systematically targeted by international hacker collectives.  In fact, a number of other companies and countries revealed that their data had been compromised to some degree in 2013, including such notables as Neiman Marcus, as well retailers in Germany and South Korea.

What makes these breaches particularly galling is not only the scopes of the penetration, but also the fact that hackers are able to blatantly offer sophisticated hacking tools for sale on the open market. Sources believe that the Target security breach was perpetrated by hackers who used malware purchased from a pair of Russian teens.

The real danger is the fact that not only is credit card information contained in these systems, but also is a tidal wave of other sensitive consumer information. Since data mining has become so endemic and identity theft has become such a problem for so many consumers, the question comes down to whether companies whom collect this information without your consent can be held liable if they are unable to protect it?

There’s Gold in Them There Data Mines

While the term “Data mining” was coined in the 1990s, the actual practice of digital data storage and manipulation has been around for more than 30 years.  An outgrowth of database management and machine learning systems that were developed in the 1980s, data mining was traditionally used to find patterns and relationships that are designed to predict buying habits.  In the early days of the internet, this was accomplished by getting the consumer to fill out online surveys that were designed to get them to divulge key buying and income information that could be used to deliver targeted advertisements. (If you ever entered a contest to win a prize online, you are familiar with this kind of tactic.)

Data mining
Data mining (Photo credit: moonhouse)
However, with the advent of social networks and with the rise of web browsers that were designed to report on every keystroke (such as Google Chrome), it is no longer necessary to offer an inducement to consumers to ascertain their buying and browsing habits.  This explains why you continue to see ads for products after you search for them on most search engines.  If that was where the trail ended, most people would just shrug it off as the cost of doing business online. 

Far from being the be-all or end-all of the equation, the gathering and initial use of this data is only the tip of a vast submerged iceberg.  Because once this data is accumulated it is then packaged and sold on a worldwide basis to anyone and everyone willing to pay for it. 

Your Data is for Sales, Who’s Buying ?

The NSA, FBI and other government entities pay for access to mountains of data.
An August 24, 2013 report by the "Wall Street Journal" stated,

Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and Facebook all supply user data to the NSA based on secret ordered from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court under a program known as Prism. Although U.S. law mandates compliance, the government usually helps pay for it.
Your Data for Sale...
Your Data for Sale... (Photo credit: anitakhart)
While many of the companies that share data with the government, such as Microsoft, extol the fact that they only provide this information because they are legally ordered to, all of the major players not only accept compensation, they expect it.

A Yahoo spokeswoman referred questions to its Friday comment in the Guardian. “Federal law requires the US government to reimburse providers for costs incurred to respond to compulsory legal process imposed by the government,” the company told the newspaper. “We have requested reimbursement consistent with this law.”

We’re not talking chump change here either.  More importantly, who else do these internet edifices share or sell their data with?  Well, it all depends on who you ask.  Take Google, for instance.  While the world’s largest search engine is tight lipped when it comes to who they share or sell information to, in a 2008 article in the German magazine Stern, the magazine bought a list containing the names, addresses, dates of birth, occupations and phone numbers of hundreds of German citizens from the world’s most popular search engine. 

The writer of the article actually picked up the phone and called the phone numbers informing each person who picked up how and where he had obtained the information.  Since Germany has strict laws regarding the protection of personal data, those who were contacted were outraged as was the German government, who subsequently sued Google.

Google wasn’t the only Internet company sued over privacy issues by Germany.  So was Facebook, which was dragged into a lawsuit by German authorities in 2011 over its use of face recognition software on its services.

Of course, in the United States there are no such legal speed bumps in the data-mining superhighway.  More to the point, not only is your personal information available, but what is amazing is the sheer volume that is being collected. And while search engines and social networks can be tight lipped when it comes who can use their data, there are other companies who are quite up front when it comes to selling the personal data of every man, woman and child in the US.

MarketingSherpa Email Summit 2006 - Acxiom Digital
MarketingSherpa Email Summit 2006 - Acxiom Digital (Photo credit: MarketingSherpa)
Two companies, Acxiom and Epsilon, are a couple of the largest data mining operations in the world.  To quote Wikipedia, Acxiom has been described as "one of the biggest companies you've never heard of.  In addition to collecting information about people, the company helps marketers anticipate the needs of consumers, according to the documentary "The Persuaders." As the world's largest processor of consumer data, Acxiom has identified 70 types of consumers with its segmentation product PersonicX.”

Here’s some data on Acxiom: In the third quarter of 2012, Acxiom’s revenue was $281 million, which was down 2% from the same quarter a year before.  For the fiscal year that ended March 31, 2011, Acxiom’s revenue was up 5.5% to $1.16 billion.

“Most people know that basically everything that we do on the Internet is tracked, but data mining goes far beyond that.  When you use a customer rewards card at the supermarket, the data miners know about it.  When you pay for a purchase with a credit card or a debit card, the data miners know about it.  Every time you buy a prescription drug, that information is sold to someone.  Every time you apply for a loan, a whole host of organizations is notified.  Information has become an extremely valuable commodity, and thanks to computers and the Internet it is easier to gather information than ever before.” 

You Don’t Own Your Data, They Do

#etmooc @audreywatters asks 'Who Owns Your Edu...
#etmooc @audreywatters asks 'Who Owns Your Education Data (and Why Does It Matter?)' (Photo credit: giulia.forsythe)
The biggest problem for consumers is that for the most part, they do not own their data.  If you subscribe to the majority of social networks, blogs and portals you need to read the find point in their user agreements.  Because if you do, you will find out that while you are free to post information on yourself and your friends, you do not in fact own it.  The operators of the social networks, blogs and portals do. 

The only way to be sure, of who owns what, is to read the user agreements that are part of every browser, search engine, portal and social network.  But really ... how many of us ever do that?  This is important since the terms of use change from year to year.  Google has made a number of sweeping changes to its privacy issues over the years.  In the current iteration under the heading of “Information We Share” is the following:

We do not share personal information with companies, organizations and individuals outside of Google unless one of the following circumstances applies:
·         With your consent
We will share personal information with companies, organizations or individuals outside of Google when we have your consent to do so. We require opt-in consent for the sharing of any sensitive personal information.
·         With domain administrators
If your Google Account is managed for you by a domain administrator (for example, for Google Apps users) then your domain administrator and resellers who provide user support to your organization will have access to your Google Account information (including your email and other data).

Have a Not-so Sweet Cookie

English: Cookies settings and view in Firefox ...
English: Cookies settings and view in Firefox 3.0 browser Русский: Просмотр и настройка cookies в браузере Firefox 3.0 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The real elephant in the room is the fact that for the most part, companies and/or individuals who want to track your every movement online don’t even have to ask your permission.  All they have to do is get you to accept their cookie.  These cookies are not as sweet as they sound.  All they are is a subroutine that is designed to collect information from your computer, tablet or Smartphone.  The way they get onto your system is simplicity itself.  You open the door and let them in.

Have you ever downloaded a “Free App?”  Have you ever signed up to play a “Free Game?”  Have you ever entered a “Free Contest?”  If the answer is yes to any of the above then you may have accepted a cookie onto your system that is now free to roam and collect as you point and click.  Some people have so many of these gizmos on the loose in their machine that it will slow to a crawl.  Sound familiar?

Shaking the Bugs Out of Your Browser

While the cleaning mechanism varies from browser to browser, there are ways to clean the digital carpet.  If you are using Chrome, click on the master control button on the far right of the browser.  (The one has three parallel black lines.)  By clicking on this button and then hitting history, you will be able to clear out both your browsing history and any cookies that you have picked up along the way. (You can also hit Control H.)  While this won’t prevent other cookies from attaching themselves to your device, it will shake out those already onboard.

Better still is to opt for a more proactive approach.  This entails being more careful about where you click and what you accept as free.  In terms of browsers, you can either find a browser (such as Comodo dragon) that does not collect user information.  On the other hand, if you are a dyed-in-the-wool Chrome user, you can hit the same master control button and opt to open a “New Incognito Window.”  While using this option will eliminate some of your browsing traces such as search history and cookies, according to Google, it still doesn’t protect you from:

Going incognito doesn't affect the behavior of other people, servers, or software. Be wary of:
  • Websites that collect or share information about you
  • Internet service providers or employers that track the pages you visit
  • Malicious software that tracks your keystrokes in exchange for free smileys
  • Surveillance by secret agents
  • People standing behind you
When you realize all the many ways that your personal information can be used by others, the last thing you want to do is dig a hole from which you cannot hope to escape. Here is a list of browser plus-in's that can help; Google Privacy, Ad blocker, Ad Block, Ad Remover, and WOT (Web of Trust). You can find many more by doing a search for privacy plug-in’s for your browser or going to that browsers store and searching for them there. You may also find that your antivirus/malware software also provides plug-in’s for your browsers.

In this article, I discussed how Big Data is changing the way government and big business track consumer behavior. I discuss how this can lead to huge security breaches since so much data is housed in one place. I also discuss how this can become a big problems for these businesses when consumers react negatively to these breaches. Monetary losses will be huge on both the consumer and business side and some businesses will not survive these monumental Big Data breaches. Finally, I have provided several ways that you can minimize browser data tracking, ways to protect yourself from all the players in the Big Data world. If you found this article useful, share it with friend and associates. If you have a comment, post it in the comment sections. Remember this, cookies are best eaten ... not added to your browser.

If you like this article, you can find more by typing “Internet security” in the search box at the top left of this blog.

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Since 1995, Carl Weiss has been helping clients succeed online.  He owns and operates several online marketing businesses, including Working the Web to Win and Jacksonville Video Production. He also co-hosts the weekly radio show, "Working the Web to Win," every Tuesday at 4 p.m. Eastern on

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