What Is Data Mining?

Big companies know more about you than you could ever imagine—here's how

Data mining is the practice of extracting valuable information about a person based on their internet browsing, shopping purchases, location data, and much more. Data mining companies gather this information using email lists you’ve signed up for, your Facebook likes, Google search history, and a dozen other sources––including some you would never think of. 

Data mining is the act of analyzing patterns based on broad data sets.

Why Do Companies Data Mine?

Data mining might also be called data discovery or knowledge discovery.

Companies search for personal likes and interests to generate targeted marketing campaigns. Your personal information is incredibly valuable to companies because it can be used to influence your purchasing decisions; for example, think of the ads you see on Facebook. Perhaps you search for dog food options on Google and suddenly you're bombarded with advertisements trying to sell you that specific type of dog food. That’s the result of lower-level data mining via the cookies in your browser.

A more complex, in-depth version of data mining comes in the form of your credit card offers. Maybe a conversation with a friend sparked your interest in classic cars and you take a bit of time to search for affordable, classic cars in your area. A few weeks later, you receive an offer in the mail from your credit card company. Like magic, you have been pre-approved for an auto loan for almost the exact amount you need to buy that classic car you looked at. 

How Do Data Mining Companies Collect Personal Data?

Think twice before you sign up for that rewards program––it might be a ploy to get more information about you. For example, if you join your local grocery store's rewards program, every purchase you make is logged and the company can use that to analyze large data sets on customer purchases. This is how companies know (statistically) that purchases of eggnog and apple cider skyrocket around Christmas time and how companies study regional preferences for certain products. 

Your personal information is also hugely valuable. When you like something on social media, make a post, or join a mailing list, this information is logged. Your likes and interests are used to create a “marketing profile” companies use to categorize potential customers. If you’re a male between the age of 25 and 30 with an interest in hiking and kayaking, expect to see a lot of advertisements from outdoors-focused companies. 

Mailing lists and personal information are bought and sold like commodities. It’s one of the sources of controversy surrounding Facebook and other social media outlets. People create profiles and freely share their lives without worry, but that information is then sold to companies that compile it into lists and databases, and is then later sold to major corporations. 

Websites and social media use cookies and tracking software to view the websites you visit and the kind of things you are interested in.

Can I Avoid Having My Data Tracked?

The majority of data mining comes through social media profiles and tracking cookies. There are some browsers that limit website’s abilities to track you, but you can also download third-party software that can achieve the same thing. Data mining tools are so sophisticated that they are almost impossible to completely avoid, but there are steps you can take to limit your exposure. 

Be careful of what mailing lists you sign up for. If you're offered to join a rewards program, know that for whatever benefits it offers, it will likely track your information. Intentional, focused effort can help you avoid having your personal data snagged by companies.