Supporting breast cancer awareness could raise your insurance rates

Is that a sensationalist headline or what?

A coworker and I had a discussion over lunch that had me thinking about digital privacy. A digital profile is the aggregate information that is collected about your online activities. What our “digital profile” says about us and what it can be used for is both entertaining and scary. The entertaining part is coming up with fictional scenarios that could happen, the scary part is that the scenarios could be happening now.

Cue twilight zone narration voice

/Scenario 1:/ A health insurance company is trying to lower rates for customers. By profiling customer's search history and social network information they can more accurately place people into high or low risk categories and determine what rates they should pay. For customers that have opted for a private social network, information is pulled from their “Friends” who have public data and a profile is built based upon aggregate friend information. As the program continues, more information is gathered about the users. Suddenly someone who posts something supporting breast cancer awareness is in a higher risk category because of an increased probability they are related to someone with cancer.

/Scenario 2:/ A car insurance company is trying (again) to lower rates for customers. They use the same methods above but also found that with cell phone GPS they can accurately take snapshots of how fast the customer is driving. Suddenly someone who has been a safe driver under the previous system that drives 10 miles over the speed limit is bumped to a riskier category.

It easy to come up with scenarios once you get started:

  • Hiring (or firing)
  • Getting added to a “no fly list”
  • Loan applications
  • Legal cases (think divorce, paternity)
  • Identity theft
  • Benefits claims (based on some activity you post, contesting eligibility for benefits)

So should you try to hide your identity on the Internet? Personally, I would rather have privacy laws in place that protect user data. I don't want a world where only sophisticated users can protect their information. I don't want to hide in an Internet cave battling new ways to collect information about me. I enjoy using the new social services that are coming out. Perhaps I'm naive.

Some links to check out: