As the Maryland-based National Security Administration deals with a phone and email records scandal sparked by revelations from former contractor Edward Snowden, the practice of data mining is not as controversial for many area companies.
For example, FiscalNote, an 11-employee Bethesda business that started in March, peruses masses of public data such as legislative bill proposals, regulations and court cases to help it predict government action and provide real-time analysis for many Fortune 500 companies.
Using an algorithm it developed, the company can predict the likelihood of a bill passing, or run a profile of campaign finance data.
“We are first a technology company and second a policy company, taking a computational approach,” said Tim Hwang, CEO and co-founder. “We believe we have the potential to revolutionize the way that businesses and advocacy groups learn about state and local policy.”
FiscalNote’s investors include Internet billionaire and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang.
Another Montgomery County company engaged in data mining is Blue Corona, a fast-growing Gaithersburg business that has developed an analytics system to track how effective a company’s website is in marketing its business, using techniques like search engine optimization and email marketing. The idea is that better information will make the company’s marketing more effective, CEO Ben Landers said.
“We help our clients get more qualified visitors to their websites,” he said. “It’s not uncommon for clients to double and triple their website traffic and leads.”
Clients include Coakley Realty of Rockville, which has seen the number of property management leads it receives rise from three to five a month to about 40. In turn, business has been good for Blue Corona, which saw its own sales increase to about $3 million last year from about $400,000 in 2009.
Data analytics company Acxiom Corp. recently unveiled a website called AboutTheData.com to give people an opportunity to see and change what marketing data it has about them. The tool is the first to display data that originated offline that is now used by advertisers online, said Mark Zembal, senior director of marketing and communications for Little Rock, Ark.-based Acxiom. “Hundreds of thousands” of people have visited the site since it went live Sept. 4, he said.
“Acxiom is the first third-party data provider offering this level of transparency,” Zembal said.
Acxiom, one of the largest companies in the industry with earnings last fiscal year of $57.1 million on revenue of $1.1 billion, is convinced that giving people a choice about marketing data is the right thing to do, CEO Scott Howe said in a statement. “We believe we have furthered an important conversation about the need for our industry to be more transparent and think that consumers are appreciative of greater insight into and control over marketing data related to them,” he said.
Such data brokers learn about people through Internet “cookies” that attach to the websites people view online. While big data companies are not the “evil empire,” there is a need for people to be able to utilize a “do not track” mechanism to stop companies from mining cyberspace for information about them, Federal Trade Commission member Julie Brill said in a recent speech before the Computers Freedom and Privacy Conference in Washington.
The NSA came under fire recently when Snowden leaked information that detailed how the agency has monitored the records of customers of Verizon Communications, including their phone logs, email and websites visited. Meanwhile, tech giant Google is waging its own legal battle to be able to scan users’ email to more effectively target online ads.
A bill is in Congress that would end the bulk collection of Americans’ communications records and place new controls on government eavesdropping programs.
“We don’t have to pass judgment on the NSA or Snowden to acknowledge the disclosures have sparked a necessary and overdue debate on how to balance national security against citizens’ privacy rights,” Brill said.
She noted benefits of big data companies’ programs such as being able to predict flu outbreaks, the development of vehicles that can brake before drivers sense danger and more efficient spam filters. “There is no reason that big data cannot coexist with an effective ‘do not track’ mechanism and with a system that empowers consumers to make real choices about how their private information will be used,” Brill said.
The website done by Acxiom is encouraging, but has limits in what data people can view and could result in more privacy intrusion because users have to enter more information about themselves to access the site, said Adi Kamdar, a representative with the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation. That group has filed a lawsuit against the NSA over the collection of bulk telephone call records.
“Ultimately, we need a system with teeth that allows consumers to take fuller control of data about them,” Kamdar said.