Privacy loss, price discounts do not mix


Tommy Collison, Deputy Opinion Editor

U.S. insurance companies are starting to give discounts to people willing to share their private data with insurers, according to an April 8 New York Times article. When Andrew
Thomas, featured in the article, allowed his insurance company to access his location, he received discounts for “healthful behavior” such as using the gym regularly. Several
insurance companies around the world are capitalizing on this concept, which is an example of the economic savings possible when data is accessed on a huge scale — it has long been common knowledge that healthy people cost health insurance companies less. These discounts, however, come at the cost of a reduction in personal privacy. Companies need to be more sensitive to consumer privacy, especially considering how hard it is to control what happens to the data once it is collected. Until there are hard and fast rules about how data can and cannot be used, it is reckless of the companies to gather it.

We live in a world where prospective employers Google  our names and malicious exes can remotely turn on our webcams. We produce data about ourselves and others at historic rates: 90 percent of the world’s data was created  in the last two years.  Americans still have not had an informed public debate on government surveillance. Experts keep saying that privacy is dead and that millennials overshare, but there is a lot of evidence pointing toward the fact that millennials still care very much about their privacy. Snapchat’s meteoric rise  is telling, given that 71 percent of its users are under 25 and that photos can only be accessed for a few seconds. This is the state of technology today: we are creating data about ourselves — who we are dating, where we are, what websites we visit — and instead of being sensitive to potential privacy violations, insurance companies are asking for more and more information about us so they can monetize it.

Benjamin Franklin reportedly once said “three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead.” When there is so much data about us online, it becomes exponentially harder to keep our personal information to ourselves and out of the clutches of advertisers and telemarketers. We are living in a time when our laws and social norms have not quite caught up with the impressive stalking applications of Facebook and Instagram. It makes business sense for insurance companies to harvest as much data as they can about us, which is why they offer price discounts. We are starting to see informal taxes on private information crop up too, when a grocery store gives us membership discounts in return for our email address. The implication is clear: you can be a private individual, but it will cost you. It does not have to be this way — as consumers, we must demand that companies be more responsible with user data.

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them. 

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, April 14 print edition. Email Tommy Collison at [email protected]