In the most basic of terms, data mining is defined as a process by which patterns in large data sets are discovered. This involves the comprehensive utilization of machine learning, database systems, and statistical applications, among others, to reveal these patterns (as well as anomalies and correlations) that can provide insights into what the data is saying.
By mining data, businesses and organizations can rely on data sets to attempt to predict the future. This is, of course, an inexact science, but it nevertheless offers a data-driven approach to decision-making.
Here’s a simple example of data mining: Grocery stores mine the data of their customers to determine purchasing patterns. This information can be used in a myriad of ways, from determining which coupons customers use most often to which items to display at the checkout aisle to where items are placed within the store.
In other words, the store’s use of a data-driven approach based on mined data allows it to maximize its sales by placing desirable items in high-traffic areas as well as ensuring that customers get the right coupons to trigger a purchase of a desired item.
Of course, data mining can be used for all sorts of other applications and in all sorts of businesses and industries, including medicine, television and radio, marketing, finance, and banking, just to name a few.
How Data is Mined
The tricky part is that your data is often mined without your knowledge. Computer systems evaluate your personal data (along with a lot of other people’s data) and give businesses the ability to improve how they target their products and services to you. This information can come from any number of sources, from what you enter in search engines to your social media posts to apps that run on your phone.
The process of mining data is extremely structured. Mined data can be filtered in a variety of ways, from gender to geographic location to income to age, and many points in between. As noted a moment ago, the purpose of categorizing the mined data in such a way is to target you with specific products and services that you might be inclined to buy.
Data mining begins with the collection of data from one of the sources noted above – your browser search history, smartphone activity, credit card activity, and so forth. Once the data is collected, it’s recorded and stored for future examination. All that data is then sorted and organized.
The examination of mined data is usually done by software that looks for patterns in the data that enables data miners to predict future behaviors (e.g., what laundry detergent you might buy based on the detergent you’ve bought in the past).
And while this seems simple enough, data mining can actually be quite complex given how much data that we produce in a given day. In fact, data mining companies might have a very robust data set on you based on your purchasing and browsing activities over the years.
Since there is so much data out there on each and every one of us, it should come as no surprise that our personal data is mined all the time. And while many companies use the information they mine for legitimate marketing purposes, all that personal data can fall into the hands of the wrong people, like hackers, who endeavor to steal your personal information.
Like many other people, you may have an interest in learning about how you can prevent your data from being mined and increasing the privacy of your personal information. Below are a few steps you can take to do just that.
Protect Your Privacy When Browsing Online
If you are like many people, you spend a considerable amount of time browsing online for work or personal purposes. The process of doing online searches has the significant potential of opening you up to the prospect of significant data mining.
There are some reliable applications that can protect your privacy when browsing the internet. These products are designed to provide privacy for specific search engines. Thus, when you consider a particular solution, you need to double-check to make certain it is designed to the search engine you use the most:
In addition to taking advantage of one or another of these privacy applications, you can also protect your privacy and prevent data mining by surfing the net in privacy mode. All major search engines have a privacy mode that shields your online activity and ensures that no record is made of what you do on the internet.
If you don’t want to do that, you can modify the browser settings to ask websites not to track what you’re doing. Of course, clearing the browser history and the cookies after working online will help too.
Using highly secure browsers is another option. Tor Browser, for example, doesn’t save your browser history. It also stops websites from tracking you, which prevents websites from being able to gather your data for mining purposes. Tor Browser even claims to prevent government agencies from eavesdropping on your online activities.
The point is that your browser activity can reveal a lot of information about you. And while most of that information is fairly run of the mill, it’s still being collected and added to a data profile on you.
Use a Secure VPN
By far, one of the best methods you have to prevent your data from being mined is to use a secure virtual private network, or VPN.
When you get online, you access the internet via an IP address. Unfortunately, IP addresses contain a lot of information about you, up to and including your geographic location.
But a secure VPN changes that – it allows you to surf the web anonymously because it allows you to send and receive information via the internet through a private network. In other words, a VPN connects your private network to a public one, thereby giving you a layer of protection between your phone, tablet, or computer and the internet.
When you sign up for a VPN, you’ll find that they are typically quite inexpensive. And since they allow you to change your IP address, you can connect to the internet via dozens – if not hundreds – of location options offered by your VPN provider.
Avoid the Installation of Adware
Another key tactic you need to employ to prevent data mining is to do everything in your power to prevent the installation of adware onto your computer.
One of the more important steps that you can take to protect against the invasion of your computer with adware is to be careful about where you download software. Generally speaking, you should only download software from the site of a reputable developer or from a reliable merchant like Amazon, though, even then, your data might still be vulnerable to mining.
Adware is often associated with free software downloads. While getting something for free sounds great, you don’t truly get the software for free. The price is often your private data being mined and malware being installed on your computer that could further put your private information in danger.
Use a Temporary Email Address
When you are seeking a new product or service online, utilize a temporary email address for your contact information.
When you are shopping online for a product or service you become more vulnerable to data mining. If you use a temporary email address, you form a layer of protection from people and businesses intent on data mining and other activities invasive of your privacy.
Continue to use a temporary email address even after you sign up for a particular service, at least for a period of time. Once you are satisfied with the service and make the decision to use it indefinitely, you can begin to associate your primary email account with the business or organization.
Until then, though, a temporary email address keeps spam emails at a minimum in your real email account while also keeping your actual information (e.g., your name, address, phone number, banking information, and so forth) separate from the burner email you use.
To make it easier on you, there are some companies that will create burner email addresses for you. 10 Minute Mail is a top choice for many people who wish to minimize the opportunity for others to mine their data.
Use Cash More Often
In today’s world, using cash has certainly fallen out of vogue.
Many people prefer not to carry cash for fear that they’ll lose their money. Others prefer to use credit cards to earn points for shopping, travel, and so forth. Many credit and debit cards come with fraud protection, travel insurance, and other perks that make them a worthwhile alternative to cash.
There’s just one problem, though – each time you use a credit or debit card, you’re providing detailed information that can be mined.
From the date and time you made a purchase to the precise items you bought to the store or website you made the purchase from, each transaction leaves a long trail of data that miners will want to get their hands on.
But by using cash, there’s no trail. Your name isn’t collected, so there’s no data to cross-reference with existing data about you that’s already been mined. There’s no record of what you bought or where you bought it, either (though, your movements could probably be tracked through CCTV footage, but that’s a whole other discussion).
At the end of the day, cash might be far less convenient than using your credit card, but if you want to minimize how much of your data is out there to be collected and mined, cash is the way to go.
Protect Your Email Address in Public Settings
Never place your email address in a public forum or any location online accessible to the general public or even a section of the population. Displaying your email address and similar data in this manner renders you vulnerable to scripts and spam bots that will collect and mine that data.
This is where a disposable email address can come in handy. If you want to join an online forum or community of some sort, use a burner email, that way your personal email isn’t displayed.
Tighten Up Security on Your Mobile Device
It isn’t just your browsing history that data miners are after…
In fact, your smartphone can send loads of information to data miners that they will find very useful in targeting you.
For example, some apps, like Snapchat, track your location in real-time. It’ll even show your current location on a map for your friends to see!
And Snapchat certainly isn’t the only app to do this…
To ensure a greater level of privacy, be sure you change the permissions on apps on your phone to a more private option, like that it can only track you when the app is open (or not use your location data at all).
If you have apps on your phone that you no longer use, delete them. Not only does this free up space on your phone, but it also reduces the number of apps that might be tracking and mining your data in the first place.
Think Twice About a Fitness Tracker
Fitness trackers can provide you with a lot of beneficial information to help you stay healthy. But that might come at the cost of your personal information being mined.
Incidents in the past have been reported about fitness tracker information being mined by companies including Facebook and Google. Some of this information can be highly specific, too, like your phone number, email address, and physical location.
Additionally, health and fitness apps collect and store information about your health, which might be sold and mined by third-party companies. This might include anything from your heart rate to your dietary intake to how much you exercise.
Data mining is crucial to the functioning of some of the most successful enterprises doing business online today, according to The Atlantic. And while that’s all well and good, it sometimes comes at the expense of your personal information being mined.
Protecting yourself from data mining is important because not only do reputable ventures utilize data mining but so do disreputable actors who inhabit the internet. Your local grocery store collecting information on the food you buy in order to improve the types of coupons you get is one thing. But a third-party vendor accessing your personal information without your knowledge in order to sell your information to yet another vendor is a whole other ball game.
While data mining is very common, it isn’t something you just have to live with. Use one or more of the options listed above to minimize your online footprint and protect your data from misuse.