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Essay: The Pros and Cons of Data Mining: Why It Should Not Be Abolished

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  • Published: 1 February 2018*
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  • Words: 1,090 (approx)
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Earlier this year, a data scientist named Aleksandr Kogan designed a survey to collect the psychological profiles of users and all their Facebook friends – namely their likely character, behaviour and interests – to supplement his academic research. What began as a mere research tool has become one of the greatest privacy scandals in the history of the internet once he sold this data of 87 million users to a data analytics firm, Cambridge Analytica, who used it to manipulate Americans to cast their vote for Donald Trump. This Cambridge Analytica controversy, that sent shockwaves around the globe, has resulted in citizens raising their pitchforks in dismay at the process of data collection and mining- and rightly so – due to the obvious concern that our private information is at the mercy of such companies. Saying this, it is a must that we eradicate this fallacy that industry titans such as Google have masses of individuals sitting in the midst of a dark room waiting intently for citizens to reveal their lives. In reality, the process of data mining merely employs algorithms to pick out key information and patterns in user data to enable companies to make better decisions that will ultimately be vital for a user-friendly internet and retail experience as well as providing an array of benefits in health and security; all of which will better the world we live in. Thus, data mining should definitely not be abolished.

One of the most appealing benefits of data mining is its ability to ameliorate customer experiences in the retail sector – through personally targeted ads – and provides citizens access to a wealth of information at our fingertips – which is currently free of charge due to the billions of dollars generated from companies advertising on search engines. Therefore without data mining – meaning no knowledge about each customers interests – companies will experience greater struggles to successfully sell their products to users and therefore will detract them from advertising online; causing a cascading effect that sees individual's having to use their hard earned dollars instead to supplement their searches(Goyal, 2017). Can you imagine a world where each search you make incurs a fee? Every typo causing your bank balance to dwindle? Whilst pessimists may see perils involved in sharing your likes, or see personalised ads as a selfish marketing gimmick, is it really so bad to go on Youtube and see a 'suggested video' based on your recent activity, or to open Facebook and see an abundance of offers for your favourite restaurants, or heaven forbid a 95% discount of your favourite Nike shoes. I think not. By simply continuing our day-to-day lives and allowing the algorithms to do the hard yards for us simply from the posts we like, the videos we watch and the searches we make, we can avert the cumbersome and frustrating endeavours associated with browsing and locating the best deal of a desired product; all of which will revolutionise our shopping experience and ensure both satisfaction and convenience like never before.

However, it is not only the retail industry that will be transformed by data mining; in-fact the most astounding advancements will be in healthcare and security. By being able to access mass data from millions of people, doctors around the world will be able to easily compare collated information about specific symptoms, diagnosis pathways, and effects of certain drug regimens, to ultimately diagnose and treat patients both quickly and effectively. Although the start-up costs of data mining are hefty, this reduction in wasted efforts will see the price of treatments drop significantly, thus this basic necessity will not only become more accessible for individuals of differing socio-economic backgrounds but has a potential to save $493 billion dollars(Freiherr, 2015); which will further unburden taxpayers. In other words, data mining will make treatments quicker, better, cheaper, more accessible and most importantly will save more lives – So why we are so antagonistic towards it? Is the protection of our personal information more important than saving human lives? Is this what society has become? Like David Castro, Director of the Centre for Data Innovation told The Washington Post "The goal in healthcare is not to protect privacy, the goal is to save lives." (Anon., 2018). Furthermore, whilst some believe the clarity and openness brought by dataveillance is a downfall, it will enable governments to trace a suspect's communication, contacts, movements and purchase to predict and foil fraudulent or even terrorist activity to ultimately enhance community safety. In-fact, and underdeveloped version in Texas alone has already recovered $2.2 million dollars of stolen funds and has identified 1400 suspects (Anon., 2018).

Moreover, whilst the Facebook scandal has substantiated the claim that data mining could compromise our privacy, a strict new extensive rule book for data collection and mining called the General Data Protection Regulation(GDPR) has already emerged in the European Union since the Cambridge Analytica controversy – highlighting that governments are learning from past failures to ensure that companies safeguard our privy information, further incentivising this obedience through the threat of a $16 million dollar fine for any infringements(Curtis, 2018). In addition to requiring active consent from users, and providing them with the ability to view their personal 'data dossiers' companies have compiled, data scientist will carefully monitor each company to ensure they abide by the rules and provide unambiguous explanations regarding their purpose of use and method of data collection – instead of the lengthy terms and conditions jargon we have become accustomed to blindly accepting – to maintain transparency and ultimately establish trust with the user that their data will not be recklessly shared. Additionally, the recent colossal $120 billion (Shaw, 2018) dollar plunge of Facebook's company value, in just 1 day,  has been a sobering experience for companies world-wide of the possible ramifications of their negligence in protecting privacy, and are now not only counting their blessings that such a scandal did not occur to them,  but are more motivated than ever before to protect privy user information. Although this doesn't fully eradicate the possibility of privacy breaches, it establishes solid foundations which can be slowly built upon to further mitigate the risks of data mining.   

All in all, data mining has major benefits in retail, healthcare, security and our experiences online. However, for those cynical naysayers still hell-bent on wielding the possibility of privacy breaches as the sole reason for rebuffing this revolutionary process; I would like to leave you with the wise words of a Harvard Alumni Atul Butte: "Hiding within those mounds of data is knowledge that could change the life of a patient, or change the world." (Diraj, 2014).

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