Data mining can be defined as the process of extracting useful information from the large amount of data stored in databases. With the rapid development in computer and information technologies, large databases are used to gather, store and retrieve data (Vaidya & Clifton 2004). Data mining systems exploit these data sources for the purposes of creating new knowledge.
Data mining systems have the capacity to search through large amount of data that would be meaningless and convert it to useful information. Though data mining is a knowledge creation tool, it use for obtaining personal information has been widely criticized and is seen as unethical and an infringement to an individual’s privacy rights.
Most private companies use data mining techniques to study consumer behaviour so as to reveal certain trends that can be exploited to increase their sales and profits. Government agencies, on the other hand, use information mining techniques to improve security and social governance.
Government security agencies combine private and public databases with personal information so as to identify patterns that link particular individuals to terrorism, crime and corruption (Seifert 2007).
Due to the power vested upon most government agencies, they have the authority to access information from both private and public databases. For example, government agencies can retrieve data stored by mobile phone companies so as to track their client calls and messages. The same case applies to emails and websites.
Mining of data by government agencies have long been criticized and is seen as a threat to information privacy. Critics of personal data mining insist that it infringes on the rights of an individual and result to the loss of sensitive information (Fule & Roddick 2004). Privacy laws and policies should ideally be used to protect personal information from any misuse or transfer.
According to Olson (2007), collecting personal information is unethical and unlawful as it violates privacy laws. On the other hand, government agencies insist that such mining activities are done with the intention of improving the national security, preventing terrorism and improving social governance. In this paper, a critical analysis of legal and ethical issues surrounding data mining by government agencies was done.
Various studies show that even though data mining has many advantages, it use for surveying an individual without his consent can be potentially dangerous. Various publications discuss the importance of data mining to both private and public bodies. According to Wahlstorm et al. (2006), data mining is evolving rapidly due to the improvement in computing and information technologies.
Methods of data collections have become sophisticated in the recent past with digital systems replacing manual methods. These digital methods include: biometric tags, radio frequency identification tags (RFID), cell phones, bar code readers, smart cards and Geographical Positioning System (GPS) location. These gadgets have enhanced the process of data collection.
Wahlstorm et al. (2006) however cautions that, advancement in computing and information technology exposes a lot personal data which can be used without the consent of the owner. Tavani (2004) adds that, with the current advancements in technology, more privacy and ethical issues are arising from data usage, storage and mining.
According to Wahlstorm et al. (2006), ethical issues about data mining are a result of exploring individual’s data. Though most public and private organizations have strict policies on personal data privacy, government agencies have the authority to extract personal information from private and public databases.
For example, the Austrian taxation office (ATO) in their quest to investigate fraud among taxpayers sought for waiver on privacy policies so as to allow them extract personal information about an individual’s property, employment, earning from various databases(Parnell, 2011).
Though the main aim of this ATO excise is to identify tax evaders, harnessing of personal financial data is unethical and should not be done without prior consent.
While government organizations may have a pertinent reason for mining personal data, it is widely seen as unethical since it infringes on an individual’s privacy. Many government agencies around the world perform large scale data mining activities for the purposes of improving security, governance and other social services.
In the USA, government data mining operations should follow policies and principles that show respect to the rule of law. A draft by The Constitution Project (2010) indicates that the US government is using advanced data mining techniques so as to prevent incidences such as 9/11 from occurring.
The report also indicates that this process can encroach on civil and constitutional rights of individuals which include privacy, freedom of expression and protection for all.
The report highlights that innocent people have been mistaken for terrorist and travel bans imposed on them while other people use such information to ruin the reputation of famous people. For example, in the 2008 USA presidential elections, private information was used to ruin the reputation of these candidates (The Constitution Project, 2010).
Mining of personal medical records of many individuals by private and public agencies have always resulted to controversies (Ashwinkumar 2010).
Obtaining medical information from a patient without his consent is unethical even though many researchers in the medical field use this information without prior consent. Parker (2001) argues that, government agencies and medical researchers need to inform patients on the information sought for before obtaining it.
The ethical position of data mining by government agencies for security reasons still remains a controversial issue. There is a contradiction between public interest and a person’s rights and freedom. Though governments claim that they unearth pertinent information from personal records, mining this information is legally wrong, unethical and also violates the privacy of an individual (Wel & Royakkers 2004).
Though complete privacy is not possible as people within a society must communicate, personal information should only be accessed by the owner and he should decide on what to share with other people. It is therefore not morally right for the government to access and use this information in attempt to improve security.
If an individual feels that part of his information is confidential, then, it is inappropriate to access that data as he may be prone to many unforeseeable risks. To prevent privacy issues, it would be prudent for the government agencies to seek approvals from individuals before using such data.
Policy and lawmakers around the world give an individual the right to control the flow of his personal information. These laws document that an individual has the right to privacy and any information obtained from him should not be transmitted or used for any other purpose except for the purpose it was obtained for (Sarre & Prenzler 2005).
For example, a banker should not share credit card details of his clients with any other entity without the client consent. Thus, from a legal perspective, data mining is illegal. It is therefore ethically wrong for government agencies to use personal data for secondary purposes.
Data mining methods entail searching through numerous records from different sources. This means that the quality and authenticity of this data cannot be guaranteed. Though data cleaning and analysis is done, most of the sources of information may give a wrong perception about an individual. Data mining is prone to inaccuracies, errors and poor quality results.
Such low quality data may have severe implication on an individual or society. Reliance on such data may result to false accusations which affect an individual’s career, family and social life. If a person is labelled as suspect, negative consequences such as discrimination, injury or death during shoot out, loss of reputation and lawsuits occur (Fule & Rodrick 2004).
Trust is another ethical issue that results from data mining. With increased data mining activities by government agencies and private companies, most individuals are gradually losing trust on these bodies and are unwilling to share information.
In summary, data mining by government agencies compromises on an individual privacy which is unethical and illegal. However, the government actions seem justifiable in the quest to fight corruption, crime and terrorism. From the discussion, there are three possible solutions to the current issue. First, the government can be given the right to infringe on personal privacy in the hope of preventing crime and terrorism.
This would lead to abuse of ethics and privacy rules for the sake of improving security and social governance. Though this solution is good, there is no quantifiable evidence that data mining will positively identify criminals and improve security. The second solution entails a compromise between data mining, ethics and privacy. That is, allow the government to perform unethical practices on special cases.
This compromise would set the limits or situations where the government should access personal information. Such rules would dictate the type and amount of data to be collected and methods of handling it. Though this solution is good, it does not deter the government from collecting information through their secret agencies provided their claim is justified. The third solution would be to ban data mining of personal information.
This would mean that the government must rely on other sources of information for them to identify and deter crime, corruption and terrorism. This solution would force government agencies to uphold good ethical and moral behaviour and enforce privacy laws.
In order to deal with security and social governance, the government would be forced to use other methods to fight terrorism and improve governance. This would be the most feasible solution as it upholds good ethics and morals.
In conclusion, the ethical issue of data mining by government agencies still remains very controversial. Laws and policy making bodies support and uphold privacy as one of the key rights of an individual. It is therefore ethically wrong for government agencies to infringe on this basic right.
Though data mining can yield potentially beneficial results to curtail crime and terrorist activities, infringing on individual private information can have detrimental effects and is unethical. The government should therefore identify other means of improving governance and security. The government should also enforce strict privacy laws deterring all organizations from collecting personal information during data mining.
Ashwinkumar, M 2010, ‘Ethical and Legal Issues for Medical Data Mining’, International Journal of Computer Applications, vol.1.no. 28, 7-10.
Fule, P & Roddick, J 2004, Detecting Privacy And Ethical Sensitivity In Data Mining Results, Dunedin, New Zealand.
Olson, D 2007, ‘Ethical Aspects of web Log Data Mining’, International Journal of Information Technology and Management, vol.10.no1, 1-11.
Parkers, S 2001, ‘Legal Aspects of Record Based Medical Research’, Archives of Disease in Childhood, vol.89.no.1, 899- 901.
Parnell, S 2011, ATO Seeks Waiver to Hunt Data on Taxpayers’ Investments. Web.
Sarre, R & Prenzler, T 2005, The Law of Private Security in Australia, Thomson learning, Pyrmont, NSW.
Seifert, J 2007, Data Mining and Homeland Security: An Overview, CRS Report for Congress, Congressional Research Service, New York.
Tavani, H 2004, ‘Genomic research and data mining technology: Implications for personal privacy and informed consent’, Ethics and Information Technology, vol.6.no.1, 15–28.
The Constitution Project 2010, Principles for Government Data Mining: Preserving Civil Liberties in the Information Age. Web.
Wahlstrom, K, Roddick, J, Vladimir, E. & Denise, D 2006, On the Ethical and Legal Implications of Data Mining School of Computer and Information Science, University of South Australia, Mawson Lakes, South Australia.
Vaidya, J & Clifton, C 2004, ‘Privacy-preserving data mining: why, how, and when? Security & Privacy’, IEEE, vol.3.no.6,19-27.
Wel,L & Royakkers,L 2004, ‘Ethical Issues in Web Data Mining’, Ethics and Information Technology, vol.6.no.1,129-140.