Behind  the scenes: Privacy and data-mining
Behind the scenes: Privacy and data-mining

With data-mining firms harvesting personal information from online activity, privacy advocates, if not yet consumers, are alarmed, reports James Hale.

Every contemporary consumer knows it: There's a fine balance between the convenience that comes with seamless online access and the privacy one can expect to retain in a networked world.

Perhaps nowhere is that balance more graphically expressed than in the world of Dell computers. Post a comment on a blog about a negative experience with a Dell product, and you can expect that the company will contact you personally in an attempt to resolve your problem and turn you from “ranter” to “raver.” Each day, from a facility in Round Rock, Texas, Dell tracks 25,000 online conversations that mention the company.

Dell's strategy, implemented after an infamous “Dell Hell” incident – involving well-known blogger Jeff Jarvis, who in 2005 posted how the company refused to replace or fix his broken computer – has succeeded in converting one in three negative posters. But, for some, who anticipated their comments wouldn't go beyond their regular followers, Dell's outreach might seem as welcome as a call from a stalker.

Dell's 24/7 focus on what customers are saying is a visible example of how organizations collect data. Many more companies – and many without the business ethics of Dell – are scooping up personal information every time someone clicks through an online ad or uses a mobile application. 

Compiled and cross-referenced by a data marketing firm – like Alliance Data, BlueKai or eXelate – those bits and pieces of personal data are digital gold.

“For many companies, their customers' personal information is just another lucrative area of business,” says Vicente Diaz (left), senior malware analyst at Kaspersky Lab, who quotes a digital business truism: “If you are not paying for a service, you are the service.”

While consumer watchdog organizations have repeatedly raised alerts about the privacy issues related to sharing information online, there is a growing feeling that the average citizen remains largely in the dark about how their information is being used.

“We are at a point where nobody, no company, has ever had so much information on individuals,” says Diaz.

Indeed, but a number of experts are concerned about who might eventually gain access to the information. “The world is very different now,” says Lee Tien, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). “The default position most companies take is to track consumer data. Most people still don't understand that it's going on, who is doing it, and the implications of it.”