Symposium to explore 'Data Mining' process

by Paul Janczewski
Legal News

The cautionary warning for having multiple layers of safety used to be “Who’s minding the store?” But now, with the Internet and its many uses and abuses, that idiom could be changed to “Who’s mining your store?”

As in, data-mining valuable information, with few checks and balances in place.

With that in mind, Cooley Law School is holding a law review symposium on Sept. 22 from 5-9 p.m. at its Lansing campus, 217 S. Capitol, in the Temple Building auditorium, titled “Data Mining: Who’s Mining Your Business?”

The event will feature a panel of experts who will discuss how companies gather personal information, how other companies profit by buying and selling it, and how data mining works., along with potential infringement on Internet user privacy and possible legal repercussions.

Moderating will be Cooley Assistant Professor Derek Witte, a local expert on the issue who teaches an electronic discovery class.

Cooley has been holding an annual law review symposium for some time, said Monique Howery, third-year law student who is this year’s law review editor. In the past, topics have included whether justice is compromised when media influence the trial process and if the balance of power between the branches of government shifts during war. “Typically, we try to have topics that are timely and relevant in the news, subjects we think practitioners will find interesting and students will find useful,” Howery said.

Howery said there are so many ways privacy is invaded without a person’s knowledge, “it begs the question, how much of your privacy are you willing to give up?”

She said Witte took a leadership role in planning and developing the event. But given his background, he was a natural fit as moderator.

After earning his bachelor of arts degree from Marian College, Witte graduated third out of 225 in 2002 with his law degree from John Marshall Law School. In private practice, he litigated consumer fraud cases, trade secret disputes for a Chicago firm, and complex commercial litigation, including e-discovery, for a Grand Rapids firm.

He later joined Cooley, and has also written articles on and given presentations about e-discovery.

“This is an area I’ve done some research on and published articles about, and it relates to some of the scholarly work I’ve done so far,” Witte said.

Data mining, he said, is a general term for finding publicly-available information about an individual or entity, usually through the Internet. He said it is especially prevalent in corporations and large companies, to learn consumer habits and other information to fashion future strategies.

For instance, phone providers gather information about users location and call patterns, and web surfing habits from mobile telephones. Other companies gather key data on demographics, ages of users and a wide array of personal information, often without the user’s knowledge. Some companies not only use that information, but sell it to others, he said.

The panel will consist of Jason Shin, Chris Clifton, Dick DeVeaux and Andreas S. Weigend, all of whom have a wide understanding and knowledge of various aspects of data mining.
Shin, the only attorney on the panel, has experience as a legal counselor and trial attorney for many companies.

“He’s an important part of the panel because he’ll look at these issues with a critical legal eye and will identify and suggest solutions to the legal problems regarding privacy violations,” Witte said.

Clifton, associate professor of computer science at Purdue, works on challenges posed by novel uses of data mining technology and methods to preserve privacy. He will offer ways “to controvert data mining, or have more control over what information is shared with the public.”

DeVeaux, a professor of statistics at Williams College, has been a consultant for Fortune 500 companies.  “He is an expert in doing the data mining,” Witte said. “He’ll discuss the nuts and bolts of what can be done, and what is being done, to find your information on line.”

Weigend, who will present his portion via Skype, is a leading behavioral marketing expert and former chief scientist of Amazon.com.

“He’s a world wide expert on using social media to change the marketplace,” Witte said, and works with companies that want to develop strategies to use those data. “If Shin and myself are the caution and red lights of this field, Weigend is really the green light (and believes) this is the future of commerce and communication.”

Witte said the symposium is important from a legal and moral standpoint.

“The biggest thing is, what is privacy anymore, and do we want to keep it. And what’s the state of the law in response to that.”

He said many people believe they have far more privacy rights than what is outlined in the law, especially when it concerns electronically-stored information. Not everyone protects an individual’s Social Security number, the most sacred bits of information, except for leading institutions and similar organizations, Witte said.

Protection of personally identifiable information only applies to a limited number of corporations. Medical records must be kept confidential, “but beyond a handful of these statutes, there’s really nothing preventing these companies from finding out as much as they can about you,” he said.

Witte believes the erosion of personal privacy “is already evident in the generation gap.”

“You talk to students now and ask, does it concern you that Facebook knows everything about you and your friends, or that companies know your location at all times because your cell phone GPS is enabled, or that your financial information is being stored on a server in Bangladesh. They don’t seem to care. They just say that’s reality,” Witte said.

His hope is to educate the audience about what is being shared, how it’s gathered, and what can be done about the proliferation of private information. He also wants to touch on whether individuals have a right to know what data is floating around in cyberland about them, and if those few and far between legal controls regarding that information should do more.

“My opinion is, if this isn’t addressed with a legal response right away, then privacy as we imagine it will be a thing of the past in as little as five or 10 years,” Witte said. “My hope is by putting it out there, and pointing out some of the problems, that the discussion will charge everyone up to go and think about it some more and make some changes,” Witte said.

For more information, contact Howery at howerym@cooley.edu.