Products are optional, privacy isn’t

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How do you start a riot on Facebook? I don’t mean how do you use a social network to co-ordinate a civil disturbance, but rather how you can stage physical protest within the virtual world. If the same students who have taken to the streets to protest against tuition fees knew what was being planned for their personal data, they might choose to knock down a few walls on those sites as well.

According to recent headlines, insurers want to use the personal information that users post online to determine premiums and also to adjust insurance claims. The stories all come out of a pilot study carried out by Deloitte Consulting. It took personal data on 6,000 and compared its predictive value against more direct indicators, such as blood tests. Results were said to be better from the virtual information.

Adding to the weight of the story was a quoted sourced from a protection director at Aviva that the company hoped to deploy this approach in the UK next year. This is where those riots ought to be triggered. For not only is this use of data illegal, it is completely against the interests of the consumers the insurer is hoping to sell its products to.

First of all the law. You can only use data for the purpose for which it was collected, and then only with the consent of the individual. Whatever the terms and conditions of social networks may say, you can not require a person to submit to their personal photos, stories of nights out and birthday celebrations being used to decide how much they should pay for insurance. Not unless they explicitly say it is ok.

Now consider how many consumers – even blithe and carefree 18 to 25-year-olds – would feel this was a reasonable use of their data. Just to shave £10 off an insurance bill, give up your online privacy. Not much of a deal, is it?

That is assuming consumers are aware of what it happening, rather than seeing their privacy invaded behind their backs. What is worrying about the test carried out is that it reflects American legal standards which offer far less protection. Already your income, tax bill, credit balance and house price is public domain in the US, so why not your Facebook postings? Europe has taken a more robust view and may even tighten the law next year.

Insurers (and anybody else planning similar uses of social network data) need to remember that their products are voluntary. Apart from car insurance, every other product is optional. Privacy, on the other hand, is a fundamental human right.

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