Mining Operation 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, abuses and ways to gleam almost any nugget of information, that idiom could be changed to "Who's mining your store?"

As in data mining valuable information, with few checks and balances in place to protect one's privacy.

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

The event is free to the public and will feature a panel of four experts in data mining who will discuss how companies gather personal information, how other companies profit by buying and selling that information, the data mining process and how it works. The panel will also discuss the potential infringement on Internet user privacy and possible legal repercussions.

And moderating the event will be Cooley Assistant Professor Derek Witte, the local expert on the issue who also teaches an electronic discovery class. Witte agrees that who's minding the store is quickly being replaced by who's mining your store.

"If 'store' is the double entendre, as in the data that is stored with information about you and your habits, then absolutely," he said. "The 'store' is going away, and the 'store of data' is becoming the new marketplace."

Cooley has been holding an annual law review symposium for some time, said Monique Howery, a third-year law student there and this year's editor for the law review. In the past, symposium topics have included whether justice is compromised when the media influences the trial process and if the balance of power between the three branches of government shift during times of 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.

"Given the fact that privacy is so much in the news these days, with Facebook and the implications on infringement of privacy and how companies are using your information to gather data, we thought this would be perfect for this year," she 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 this year's event. But given his background, he was a natural fit as moderator for the symposium.

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 of 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's especially prevalent in corporations and large companies with a web presence to learn consumer habits and other information to aid their business and 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, an associate professor of computer science at Purdue University, works on the challenges posed by novel uses of data mining technology and methods to preserve privacy. Witte said 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 that 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.

As moderator, Witte also will keep the discussions moving, urge the panelists to be clearer if they get too technical for the audience, and conduct the question-and-answer portion of the symposium.

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.

And the 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 to protect privacy.

"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.

Witte maintains there is a great value in protecting privacy, but it could be in peril.

"It's really like the Wild West," he said.

Stories abound about the difficulties individuals face when their identity is stolen, or financial information is compromised. Not all data mining is dangerous, but there are many companies overseas who want you to send money to a deposed dictator in return for a portion of their riches.

"Your emotional reaction is you feel violated and personally investigated when you learn that some data mining is lawful, so it should lead to a pretty good discussion amongst the panelists and the audience," he 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.

It could also lead to suggestions of what the appropriate legal responses could and should be in place, such as global and national privacy statutes. Some of that information is sold to potential employers, lenders and others. Perhaps, Witte said, there should be ways to see and challenge the information, similar to challenging erroneous information on your credit report.

"If there's no statutory or regulatory scheme to manage that, then your and your future could be affected by information you have no control over," Witte believes.

Witte is excited about the symposium.

"I think I'm going to learn a lot about what's going on right now," he said. "I think it's going to be shocking to a lot of people too, about what can be discovered about you right now, and equally shocked to learn there's really no legal framework for what's OK and what's not."

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

Published: Tue, Sep 20, 2011

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