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Data-Mining: Social Media, User Privacy and Big Brother

Updated on January 3, 2013
There's a lot of data on the Internet. So, who's making money off of it and what does it mean for you?
There's a lot of data on the Internet. So, who's making money off of it and what does it mean for you? | Source


It’s 11:45 a.m. and you’re hungry, so you grab your laptop and head over to the local Perkins restaurant. As you wait to be seated, you notice a sign on the wall that says “’Like’ Perkins on Facebook to have a chance to win a cruise to the Caribbean!” The idea of a relaxing vacation excites you, so you log onto Facebook and “like” the Perkins Restaurant and Bakery page, even before taking your first sip of freshly-poured coffee. On the right-hand side of the page, you come across a few friends who have also “liked” the Perkins page. You decide to go on a virtual adventure to discover what else your friends are fans of. Before you know it, your food has arrived, and you’ve “liked” 20 additional Facebook pages.

Whether you know it or not, those seemingly unimportant “likes” are extremely valuable, maybe not to you, but, to the businesses that want to sell you things, they’re priceless. Well, almost priceless. These businesses will purchase your personal information from “data-mining” companies. The more information they know about you, the easier it is for them to decide what to sell you, or what not to sell you.

A data-mining company is “any organization that gathers personal information from the Internet with the intent to sell it for a profit.” For example, Google offers a data-mining service known as “DoubleClick.” When you visit a website, such as, data-tracking services install a code into your cookies. That code basically records everything you do on a website. If you were to click on the “Health” hyperlink on the TIME website, the data-tracker would record that and subsequently have something to sell to their clients: the information that you are interested in "health" topics. Why would a business want to buy that information? Because then it could tailor its ads specifically to your interests (assuming, of course, that you didn’t accidentally click the link).

Mark Zuckerberg - Facebook Creator
Mark Zuckerberg - Facebook Creator | Source


According to Facebook, there are more than 500 million active users, 50 percent of which log on in any given day. Facebook was designed for people to share information, regardless of how pointless the information may be. It’s no stretch of the imagination, then, that Facebook is an excellent place to mine for data. Facebook’s privacy policy states that they don’t sell any of your personal information to third parties. They don’t have to. Facebook users “like” and “share” things with their friends all the time, which happens to be a fairly good indicator of one's interests.

According to Joel Stein’s article entitled “Your Data, Yourself,” 23.1 percent of all online ads not on search engines, video or e-mail run on Facebook (Stein, 2011). That is an incredibly large number of ads. Not only do advertisers have the ability to specify a demographic of people that they’d like to target their ads toward, but Facebook has also developed a system that shows a user products their friends have “liked” or purchased.

Zuckerberg explains this concept more thoroughly:

"So this isn't an ad that's going to go to a lot of people. Basically it- when you put that information in your profile that you bought a scarf and that you like that scarf, that’s something that your friends might find interesting, right? So what we’d do is we might show that information to your friends a little bit more proactively as an ad.”

This method of marketing doesn’t seem to be invasive. After all, the user is the one sharing the information and their friend is the one “endorsing” it. However, Facebook didn’t always use such an innocent marketing scheme. During an interview with 60 Minutes in January of 2008, Zuckerberg admitted to using a program known as “Beacon.” The program tracked what a Facebook user was buying on other websites and then notified the user’s friends via Facebook. One unfortunate Facebook user bought a wedding ring online for his girlfriend, but the surprise was, uh, offset when Facebook informed all of his friends of the purchase (Stahl, 2008). Once users figured out what Beacon was doing, there was an immediate resistance to the software. Beacon was shutdown in September of 2009 (Facebook Beacon, 2011).


The Government: Big Brother is Watching You

While fiction books like George Orwell’s 1984 seem to be too farfetched for any basis in reality, the Internet has begun to challenge that notion. In fact, if you think private businesses are the only ones interested in your personal information, you are wildly mistaken. Unlike those private businesses, however, the government uses the information in a more deterministic way: it looks for trends. The more information it can obtain, the more accurately it can identify patterns.

According to a 2004 Data Mining report from the United States General Accounting Office, the United States’ top six reasons for data-mining are to (1) improve service and performance; (2) detect fraud, waste and abuse; (3) analyze scientific and research information; (4) manage human resources; (5) detect criminal activities and patterns; and (6) analyze intelligence and detect terrorist activities (Nelligan, 2004).

The Department of Defense, however, is primarily interested in using this large amount of data to detect terrorist activities, most notably since 9/11. The program is certainly for a worthy cause, but some people believe it goes too far. Mark Clayton of Christian Science Monitor explains:

"The system - parts of which are operational, parts of which are still under development - is already credited with helping to foil some plots. It is the federal government's latest attempt to use broad data-collection and powerful analysis in the fight against terrorism. But, by delving deeply into the digital minutiae of American life, the program is also raising concerns that the government is intruding too deeply into citizens' privacy (Clayton, 2006)."

Dr. Kielman, another member of the Christian Science Monitor, had this to say:

“Consider Starlight, which along with other “visualization” software tools can give human analysts a graphical view of data. Viewing data in this way could reveal patterns not obvious in text or number form. Understanding the relationships among people, organizations, places, and things – using social-behavior analysis and other techniques – is essential to going beyond mere data mining to comprehensive “knowledge discovery in databases” (Hampton, 2006).”


Privacy is a difficult concept to define, especially in the online world. Most of the information that data-mining companies are after is the information that you’re sharing with the world anyway. That’s why people create online personas: they want people to know who they are. Is it that big of a surprise, then, that companies are interested in knowing what you like? If anything, they’re doing you a favor by providing advertisements of thing you may actually be interested in.

If you are concerned about people judging your online profile, then change your privacy settings to reflect your desired visibility. If you are concerned about computers collecting your personal information, then you’re either paranoid or you simply don’t understand that these computers aren’t out to judge you, they simply want to suggest a product to you.

According to Facebook, users spend more than 700 billion minutes per month on the website. That is a lot of server requests for a website that has never crashed, and that kind of service needs to be paid for. In order to finance a website of that magnitude without charging its users, Facebook sells ad space. They don’t sell your personal information, as many people have claimed. In fact, if your privacy settings are set to ‘private,’ third parties can only access your basic information, which won't do them much good.

The Internet is information; the data-mining trend will persist – and grow.


Clayton, M. (2006, February 9). Us plans massive data sweep. The Christian Science Monitor, Retrieved from

Facebook Beacon. (2011, March 8). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 03:05, April 15, 2011, from

Hampton, M. (2006, February 06). Advise: now everyone can be a terrorist, or a crime victim. Retrieved from

Nelligan, J. (2004, May). Gao data mining report. Retrieved from

Stahl, L. (2008, January 13). The face behind facebook. Retrieved from

Stein, J. (2011, March 21). Your data, yourself. TIME, 40-46.


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