Data Mining and Social Engineering

Think again before purchasing that occasional junk food item with your debit card.

[Sucking sound]

How long do you think it will be before cash is no longer an option?  I think, not long, and the push for making it obsolete will come from many directions. Everyone would expect the government to want to move towards a cashless society for tax purposes, but corporations would get big benefit from it too.  Take the insurance industry, for example. With only so much info available from medical records, it now looks for other ways to determine whether you are a risky bet:

Data Mining CEO Says He Pays For Burgers In Cash To Avoid Junk Food Purchases Being Tracked

Medical records can be deceptive, incomplete or expensive to analyse. Mr Willi thinks that publicly available data will be increasingly useful in helping insurers distinguish the aerobics enthusiasts from the couch potatoes. His firm is small enough to be able to search for data manually. For bigger insurers, software is now being developed by technology firms such as Allfinanz and TCP LifeSystems to sift through all the marketing data that might help them identify tomorrow’s cancer patients or accident victims.

Such information can be bought from marketing firms that aggregate data about individuals from records of things like prescription-drug and other retail sales, product warranties, consumer surveys, magazine subscriptions and, in some cases, credit-card spending. At least two big American life insurers already waive medical exams for some prospective customers partly because marketing data suggest that they have healthy lifestyles, says Tim Hill of Milliman, a consultancy that advises insurers on data-mining software systems.

A majority of my family members and friends emphatically agree that the trend is frightening — but then they shrug. There is nothing we can do about it, they say.

But would you want to, if you could? –I respond.

Quizzical look. They have to think about it.

Would you forgo your retailer loyalty card or pay for your purchases in cash to avoid being data mined?  One person I talked to said no way.  “It’s like everything costs so much, they’ve jacked the prices up, so you need the discount.  They know it.”

He’s obviously not alone there.  Take Facebook,  home to almost a billion people, which turns “users into human guinea pigs” as it conducts experiments tracking user responses to stimuli like mice in a maze. The benefits outweigh privacy concerns for most people, although most people probably don’t realize to what extent they are subjects in a larger social engineering project:

What Facebook Knows

This is the first time the world has seen this scale and quality of data about human communication,” Marlow says with a characteristically serious gaze before breaking into a smile at the thought of what he can do with the data. For one thing, Marlow is confident that exploring this resource will revolutionize the scientific understanding of why people behave as they do. His team can also help Facebook influence our social behavior for its own benefit and that of its advertisers. This work may even help Facebook invent entirely new ways to make money.

And it’s not all about making money. The potential for social engineering is enormous, and is part of the goal:

Marlow says his team wants to divine the rules of online social life to understand what’s going on inside Facebook, not to develop ways to manipulate it. “Our goal is not to change the pattern of communication in society,” he says. “Our goal is to understand it so we can adapt our platform to give people the experience that they want.” But some of his team’s work and the attitudes of Facebook’s leaders show that the company is not above using its platform to tweak users’ behavior. Unlike academic social scientists, Facebook’s employees have a short path from an idea to an experiment on hundreds of millions of people.

In April, influenced in part by conversations over dinner with his med-student girlfriend (now his wife), Zuckerberg decided that he should use social influence within Facebook to increase organ donor registrations. Users were given an opportunity to click a box on their Timeline pages to signal that they were registered donors, which triggered a notification to their friends. The new feature started a cascade of social pressure, and organ donor enrollment increased by a factor of 23 across 44 states.

Marlow’s team is in the process of publishing results from the last U.S. midterm election that show another striking example of Facebook’s potential to direct its users’ influence on one another. Since 2008, the company has offered a way for users to signal that they have voted; Facebook promotes that to their friends with a note to say that they should be sure to vote, too. Marlow says that in the 2010 election his group matched voter registration logs with the data to see which of the Facebook users who got nudges actually went to the polls.

I wonder if students who read “1984” today think it funny that, some years ago, we found the concept horrifying.

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4 Comments on “Data Mining and Social Engineering”

  1. Saad Faruque Says:

    we all should have the right to not get tracked



    • Sara for America Says:

      Ummmm, well, I disagree with the word “all” – and it depends in what context you are referring to, what entity is doing the tracking. Your statement is way too broad to put a context to it.

      But generally, if a non-citizen is in the US, as a matter of protection of US citizens, he/she should expect some sort of tracking. A former felon should expect to be tracked to a certain extent, particularly pedophiles. A non-citizen does not have the same “rights” — and responsibilities — as a citizen. I am not against tracking certain individuals – particularly those who have shown a willingness to engage in hostile action against US citizens.



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