Data-mining and our personal privacy

May 15, 2013 

I recently received a packet of Kroger coupons in the mail and was surprised to see the coupons were for items I frequently purchase there. And, the next time I checked out and swiped my Kroger card, a coupon automatically printed on the back of my receipt. The coupon was for an item I had purchased two weeks prior.

Every time we use a loyalty card, fill out a warranty card, subscribe to a magazine or use a coupon or a credit card, data is being collected about our consumer behavior. Every time we perform an Internet search on our computer or smart phone, the sites we visit, the apps we download and even our location is being tracked and saved. Retailers want to know what we buy, where we buy it and how we paid for it to better understand our behavior as consumers.

Data mining involves the collection of massive amounts of data from numerous sources. Next, algorithms look for trends or correlations. For example, if you searched online for product “x,” you may also be interested in product “y.” This is why you get the junk mail you get and also why advertisements that are specifically targeted to you will pop up when you are online.

Companies have access to more information about us than ever before, and this information can be combined with data obtained from websites like Google, Facebook and Amazon. All of this data can be combined with comments from social media sites and pictures from numerous resources. The more you learn about data mining, the creepier it all seems. However, data mining is also being used to make our lives better in a number of ways:

• The federal government’s Fraud Prevention System processes and monitors 4.5 million claims from Medicare Part A, Part B and durable medical equipment each day. Claims are analyzed by beneficiary, service provider and service origin to determine patterns and stop fraudulent reimbursements from being paid.

• Medical providers are using data mining to cut costs and improve treatment, by watching for patterns. For example, by correlating patient data with surgical procedures, doctors can determine which procedures and which medical devices work best for which patients.

• According to a Wall Street Journal article, Ford and Audi envision collecting information about customer driving patterns, so their cars can recommend faster or safer routes and warn drivers about road conditions.

Of course, not everyone is comfortable with their information being sold, stored and re-sold. If you would like to read the Wall Street Journal’s special report on Data Mining, go to www.wsj.com/leadershipreport. The website contains numerous articles, including advice on protecting your privacy.

There is also an article specific to Facebook and how to use its privacy settings. If you would like to read this article, search for “A Guide to Facebook’s Privacy Settings” on the Wall Street Journal site.

Sherri Goss is vice president of Rosenberg Financial Group Inc., with offices in Macon and Warner Robins. Contact her at 922-8100 or sherri@rfmoney.com.

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