Data Mining: How Companies Now Know Everything About You

Every detail of your life — what you buy, where you go, whom you love — is being extracted from the Internet, bundled and traded by data-mining companies. What's in it for you?

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Illustration by Joe Zeff for TIME

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Even if I were to use the services of Reputation.com, there's still all the public information about me that I can't suppress. Last year, thousands of people sent their friends a Facebook message telling them to opt out of being listed on Spokeo.com, which they described as the creepiest paparazzo of all, giving out your age, profession, address and a photo of your house. Spokeo, a tiny company in Pasadena, Calif., is run by 28-year-old Stanford grad Harrison Tang. He was surprised at the outcry. "Some people don't know what Google Street View is, so they think this is magic," Tang says of the photos of people's homes that his site shows. The info on Spokeo isn't even all that revealing — he purposely leaves off criminal records and previous marriages — but Tang thinks society is still learning about data mining and will soon become inured to it. "Back in the 1990s, if you said, 'I'm going to put pictures on the Internet for everyone to see,' it would have been hard to believe. Now everyone does it. The Internet is becoming more and more open. This world will become more connected, and the distance between you and me will be a lot closer. If everybody is a walled garden, there won't be an Internet."

I deeply believe that, but it's still too easy to find our gardens. Your political donations, home value and address have always been public, but you used to have to actually go to all these different places — courthouses, libraries, property-tax assessors' offices — and request documents. "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, an advocacy group for digital rights. "There are all sorts of inferences that can be made about you from the websites you visit, what you buy, who you talk to. What if your employer had access to information about you that shows you have a particular kind of health condition or a woman is pregnant or thinking about it?" Tien worries that political dissidents in other countries, battered women and other groups that need anonymity are vulnerable to data mining. At the very least, he argues, we're responsible to protect special groups, just as Google Street View allows users to request that a particular location, like an abused-women's shelter, not be photographed.

Other democratic countries have taken much stronger stands than the U.S. has on regulating data mining. Google Street View has been banned by the Czech Republic. Germany — after protests and much debate — decided at the end of last year to allow it but to let people request that their houses not be shown, which nearly 250,000 people had done as of last November. E.U. Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding is about to present a proposal to allow people to correct and erase information about themselves on the Web. "Everyone should have the right to be forgotten," she says. "Due to their painful history in the 20th century, Europeans are naturally more sensitive to the collection and use of their data by public authorities."

After 9/11, not many Americans protested when concerns about security seemed to trump privacy. Now that privacy issues are being pushed in Congress, companies are making last-ditch efforts to become more transparent. New tools released in February for Firefox and Google Chrome browsers let users block data collecting, though Firefox and Chrome depend on the data miners to respect the users' request, which won't stop unscrupulous companies. In addition to the new browser options, an increasing number of ads have a little i (an Advertising Option Icon), which you can click on to find out exactly which companies are tracking you and what they do. The technology behind the icon is managed by Evidon, the company that provides the Ghostery download. Evidon has gotten more than 500 data-collecting companies to provide their info.

It takes a lot of work to find out about this tiny little i and even more to click on it and read the information. But it also took people a while to learn what the recycling symbol meant. And reading the info behind the i icon isn't necessarily the point, says Evidon CEO Scott Meyer, who used to be CEO of About.com and managed the New York Times' website. "Do I look at nutritional labeling? No. But would I buy a food product that didn't have one? Absolutely not. I would be really concerned. It's accountability."

FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz has been pleased by how effective he's been at using the threat of legislation to scare companies into taking action and dropping their excuse that they don't know anything about you personally, just data associated with your computer. "We used to have a distinction 10 years ago between personally identifiable information and non-PII. Now those distinctions have broken down." In November, Leibowitz hired Edward Felten, the Princeton computer-science professor famous for uncovering weaknesses in electronic-voting machines and digital-music protection, to serve as the FTC's chief technologist for the next year. Felten has found that the online-advertising industry is as eager as the government is for improved privacy protections. "There's a lot of fear that holds people back from doing things they would otherwise do online. This is part of the cost of privacy uncertainty. People are a little wary of trying out some new site or service if they're worried about giving their information," Felten says.

He's right: 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.

We're quickly figuring out how to navigate our trail of data — don't say anything private on a Facebook wall, keep your secrets out of e-mail, use cash for illicit purchases. The vast majority of it, though, is worthless to us and a pretty good exchange for frequent-flier miles, better search results, a fast system to qualify for credit, finding out if our babysitter has a criminal record and ads we find more useful than annoying. Especially because no human being ever reads your files. As I learned by trying to find out all my data, we're not all that interesting.

With reporting by Eben Harrell / London

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