25 - student - NYC That's all for now.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

I Told You So...

If you will recall, I posted some thoughts about data mining a little over a month ago. You can find it in the archives. There, I was talking about the ability for politicians to use information we provide in nearly every plastic transaction we make, to manipulate elections. Along those same lines, Tom Owad released this frighteningly, enlightening study last week. He called it Data Mining 101: Finding Subversives with Amazon Wishlists.

I highly recommend reading the article as it demonstrates exactly what it was that I was talking about. Mr. Owad shows how simple diligence and internet access can allow anyone in the world to use basic data mining techniques to track down "subversives."

His demonstration is obviously tongue-in-cheek as he selects variables partly for their humor, but the technique is sound and illuminating. He downloaded the searchable wishlists that Amazon.com users can make available. Without violating any Amazon Conditions of Use he obtained the wishlists of 260,000 US citizens.

Then he cross-referenced these lists with specific books that a "subversive" might desire. His list included the Koran, 1984, Catholic Work Movement, and included keywords such as Michael Moore and the Bible, among others. You can imagine making up a different list.

Next, users can associate a shipping address with their wishlist so that people can order them as gifts. Though the full address is hidden, it only requires a simple Yahoo People Search when you already have the city, state, first and last name.

Then with Google Maps, he was a click away from getting a satellite photograph of the individual's home - although he opted not to provide this information to the web.

NOW, query as to whether this frightens you at all? Perhaps data mining seems a little more insidious with this demonstration? Now that you're in the right frame of mind, consider Owad's further points.

Consider the access to information that the FBI and NSA have. Under the Patriot Act they can seize all of Amazon's records, including past-purchases. And as Owad points out, Amazon must not disclose that they have turned over their records. Let's just assume that they have.

If a hacker with 30 hours of free time can use the internet to get inside our minds, don't be surprised when it turns out that the government knows more about you than you do.

Next sign of the apocalypse: For $89.95 AMERICAblog just bought General Wesley Clark's cell phone records.


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