Data Mining Can Help, Immediately

I had a much different blog post lined up for today, about the controversial news that Marissa Mayer was hired to be Yahoo's CEO. But when my teenage son asked if we were going to the Batman movie this weekend I realized I have a much more urgent and important topic to discuss.

I don't want to get into a debate about gun control, violence in movies and video games, media personalities hijacking the Batman, the precise amount of religion needed to improve our morality, or the sorry support for mental health services in this homeland of ours. It just would not be productive. As The Onion notes, sadly, we'll talk about all those things and then nothing will change. You know you're in trouble as a society when your satirists are sick and tired of being funny.

But as a technologist I know there is something we can do to help. We can start doing it today. It's been proven as a reliable predictor of human behavior. And we use this technology every minute of every day for advertising, fraud, recommendations, and dating.

I'm talking about Data mining: The art and science of discovering patterns in all the mountains of data that web sites and services collect when we use them.

One of the most chilling facts to emerge in the Aurora shooting so far is that the murderer purchased 6,000 rounds of ammunition through the internet in a few weeks. That kind of activity on a credit card is a strong signal of trouble.

The other day I got a note that a hold was put on my company Visa card: An unusual charge had shown up and the bank wanted to verify the transaction. It was annoying, but it was true. We had invited Huffington Post technology team members from all over the world to NYC for training and strategy sessions. We had a night out on the town for dinner and bowling.

Usually my company card is used to pay for CTO type stuff: Amazon Web Services and trips to our development center in Dulles, Virginia. In fact, it's easy to see why the data miners at the bank, which are mostly automated processes, were concerned: The transactions on my Visa card follow a very clear pattern and bowling didn't fit. There was a good chance that I had lost my credit card and a thief was using it to entertain himself.

By putting a hold on the card the bank was protecting me. I bet this same sort of thing has happened to every reader of The Huffington Post who uses credit cards.

So now I would like the data miners at Visa, Mastercard, Discover, and American Express, to protect me in another way: Please put a hold on my credit card if I purchase an unreasonable amount of ammunition in a very short period of time. Oh, and call the police too.

The banks might have to change their Terms of Use and Privacy Policies to implement this idea. But I would happily accept the change in terms (who reads those documents anyway?). I'm pretty sure that the banks already have some discretion to flag suspicious transactions and supply that data to law enforcement -- the Patriot Act comes to mind.

If Target can know that my daughter is pregnant before I do via data mining, then JP Morgan Chase already knows when I've tipped over the edge of sanity.