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Thursday, June 01, 2006

It's Monday Morning. Do You Know Where Your Name Is?

When the junk mail industry—and that includes data brokers like ChoicePoint, Acxiom and LexisNexis—opens every Monday morning, there is already a flurry of data mining going on. Actually, the predictive modeling episodes have been in progress over the weekend, sort of a 24/7 event in this business. And your name and personal data? Always an integral part of the process.

During my tenure as a broker of mailing lists, I became interested, and eventually learned the technique of predictive modeling, primarily as a targeting means, to cut down on my clients’ “junk mail.” Most data mining/modeling companies work at the individual household level with their personalized data, something I refused to do. Working only with zip codes, it was possible for me to get acceptable results, while not encroaching on the privacy of individuals.

So what really happens when computer meets your private information in the process of data mining? First of all, there is a human being conducting the modeling procedure, who, by the way, is privy to all your personal data. Usually, there are assistants with the same access. The data arrives at the data mining company in a digital format. It is delivered by one of the services like UPS, who lost 3.9 million records of the Citigroup in mid-2005, including customers’ names, addresses, Social Security numbers, account number, etc.

Let’s say the data arrives securely, but then it must be logged in by a clerk in the tape library. In my 35 years experience in junk mail, this was where an alarming number of computer tapes housing your private information were lost. Just vanished. But in our hypothetical case it is accounted for and moves on to the people who analyze the data. Could be one or several, and each has entrée to all your private information.

Next, it reaches the human being doing the modeling, with advice from the analysts on how to crunch the data. Here’s where the fun part starts. Let’s say Sharper Image has a home humidifier/air purifier that sells for over $500, and they want to target households that both can afford the item, and have some underlying health issue need. This is where your personal data comes into play.

First, the modeler might determine if you own a home, moving next to your home value for verification, then to your income to substantiate your ability to buy the product. Other factors are marital status, children in household, whether you are a junk mail shopper, and your education level, the latter two confirming that you might carefully read the humidifier advertisement.

Our human being will want to know if there are any pets in the home, whether anyone is a smoker, who has what allergies or related ailments, and what medications are being taken, which further confirms these allergies. Other factors like your fitness level, what you buy from junk mail catalogs, and what you buy at the super market could be used.

All this data is fed into high technology software that will look at each item, determine its relevancy, evaluate its impact on the purchase of the humidifier, and spit out millions of qualified names and addresses. Sound simple? It is if you are experienced in data mining and have sophisticated programs at your disposal like neural networks (artificial intelligence).

So what’s the downside to this for the average consumer? Sharper Image determines who wants their humidifier, and you get a mailing you might just be glad to receive for a change. The answer is that nothing is wrong if you had control over your name and private information from the beginning. I am talking about my concept to pass federal legislation to give you this control, and pay you when it is sold.

This would have allowed you to say yes to the whole procedure, knowing your name and personal data was out there in junk mail limbo, able to target the breach immediately if it occurred. Believe me, the security level of your data would be significantly higher than it is now, if the junk mailers knew you had this control.

Folks, the alarming rate of stolen private information is only going to get worse. Your enlightenment is the sole purpose of this blog, and it is posts like this that point the need for individual control

There’s more to say about this in future posts. Encryption of data is one of the top levels of protection. Another possibility is anonymous separation of name and personal data. Something being used in the United Kingdom, and being explored in the U.S.

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