You have to wade through a lot to reach the good news at the end of Time reporter Joel Stein's article about "data mining"---or at least data collection and use---in the online world. There's some fog right there: what he calls "data mining" is actually ordinary one-to-one correlation of bits of information, not mining historical data to generate patterns that are predictive of present-day behavior. (See my data mining paper with Jeff Jonas to learn more.) There is some data mining in and among the online advertising industry's use of the data consumers emit online, of course.
Next, get over Stein's introductory language about the "vast amount of data that's being collected both online and off by companies in stealth." That's some kind of stealth if a reporter can write a thorough and informative article in Time magazine about it. Does the moon rise "in stealth" if you haven't gone outside at night and looked at the sky? Perhaps so.
Now take a hard swallow as you read about Senator John Kerry's (D-Mass.) plans for government regulation of the information economy.
Kerry is about to introduce a bill that would require companies to make sure all the stuff they know about you is secured from hackers and to let you inspect everything they have on you, correct any mistakes and opt out of being tracked. He is doing this because, he argues, "There's no code of conduct. There's no standard. There's nothing that safeguards privacy and establishes rules of the road."
Securing data from hackers and letting people correct mistakes in data about them are kind of equally opposite things. If you're going to make data about people available to them, you're going to create opportunities for other people---it won't even take hacking skills, really---to impersonate them, gather private data, and scramble data sets.
If Senator Kerry's argument for government regulation is that there aren't yet "rules of the road" pointing us off that cliff, I'll take market regulation. Drivers like you and me are constantly and spontaneously writing the rules through our actions and inactions, clicks and non-clicks, purchases and non-purchases.
There are other quibbles. "Your political donations, home value and address have always been public," says Stein, "but you used to have to actually go to all these different places — courthouses, libraries, property-tax assessors' offices — and request documents."
This is correct insofar as it describes the modern decline in practical obscurity. But your political donations were not public records before the passage of the Federal Election Campaign Act in 1974. That's when the federal government started subordinating this particular dimension of your privacy to others' collective values.
But these pesky details can be put aside. The nuggets of wisdom in the article predominate!
"Since targeted ads are so much more effective than nontargeted ones," Stein writes, "websites can charge much more for them. This is why — compared with the old banners and pop-ups — online ads have become smaller and less invasive, and why websites have been able to provide better content and still be free."
The Internet is a richer, more congenial place because of ads targeted for relevance.
And the conclusion of the article is a dose of smart, well-placed optimism that contrasts with Senator Kerry's sloppy FUD.
We're quickly figuring out how to navigate our trail of data — don't say anything private on a Facebook wall, keep your secrets out of e-mail, use cash for illicit purchases. The vast majority of it, though, is worthless to us and a pretty good exchange for frequent-flier miles, better search results, a fast system to qualify for credit, finding out if our babysitter has a criminal record and ads we find more useful than annoying. Especially because no human being ever reads your files. As I learned by trying to find out all my data, we're not all that interesting.
Consumers are learning how to navigate the online environment. They are not menaced or harmed by online tracking. Indeed, commercial tracking is congenial and slightly boring. That's good news that you rarely hear from media or politicians because good news doesn't generally sell magazines or legislation.