Insurance companies around the world are increasingly relying on apps to track people as they drive their vehicles. For unsuspecting drivers keen on lowering their insurance premiums, uptake has been accelerating – raising concerns over heightened levels of consumer surveillance and how it might affect those individuals in the long term.
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In New Zealand, the insurance company Tower just rolled out an app called GoCarma. It is designed to snoop on drivers to figure out their skill level. GoCarma works by connecting to an individual's car via Bluetooth.
According to the insurer, New Zealanders are completely out of touch with their personal driving skill level. It feels that its GoCarma app can improve driving standards in the country by feeding information about how they drive back to them. This, it claims, will result in lower insurance premiums.
Unfortunately, the truth behind why insurers are engaging in this kind of consumer surveillance – and the social changes it will ultimately cause – is far less ethical than those companies would have you believe.
Follow the money
In-car monitoring apps like the one recently launched by Tower leverage smartphones to track how individuals accelerate, brake, and corner. The GoCarma app can tell how smoothly an individual uses the breaks or how quickly they accelerate, for example. This data is used to give the driver a score which is later exploited to make decisions about their insurance policy.
What it's important to remember, is that the insurance company has a vested interest in making more profit. So, why spend money, time, and effort developing an app that will ultimately damage your bottom line?
The answer revolves around the data that is being accumulated and how it can be leveraged to make more money. Insurance companies will only ever reduce premiums by less than the sum they can make by exploiting the data; resulting in an overall increase in revenue for the firm.
For this to happen, people's data must have value. So should consumers be willing to pay for their insurance costs with data rather than cold hard cash?
Data as a currency
In the US, a patent filed by Allstate Corp in 2015 revealed plans to snoop on consumers using technology. According to the patent, the insurer was planning to harvest huge amounts of invasive data including their seat position, and how high they turn up the volume on their radio.
In the patent, the firm expressed interest in tracking not only who is driving a car – but also how many passengers are in the car, the age of those passengers, and the number of passengers traveling in the car. The firm also expressed interest in tracking whether there were any potentially distracting objects or animals in the car.
It would also like to track the driver's heart rate and blood pressure which could allow it to deduce where, why, and when specific drivers become anxious and may be more at risk of making an error. This kind of data collection is troubling because it could allow insurers to discriminate against individuals simply because of underlying health conditions, for example.
Now consider the fact that Allstate's patent also revealed plans to monitor the alcohol levels present in the air within a car – and it becomes easy to see how this could create an environment in which drivers are judged on much more than their personal driving abilities. This results in legitimate concerns over how tracking technology will affect people's civil liberties going forward.
Should drivers suffer higher insurance premiums for being the designated driver on game day? Should people begin to choose their friends based on how it might affect their insurance? This kind of constant surveillance reminds us of the kind of social credit systems already being rolled out in China. It stands to affect the fabric of society – in ways highly reminiscent of an episode of Black Mirror.
Ultimately, the idea that people might have to alter what they do and who they associate with in order to afford car insurance is something that seems genuinely terrifying, particularly when it is money – rather than safety – that will dictate whether people can afford to get privacy.
Where do you think you're going?
State Farm is a US insurer that claims tracking vehicles via GPS can help to reduce insurance costs for drivers. Insurers state that this is the case because it allows the car to be tracked down when it is stolen – making it easier to recover and therefore cheaper to insure.
The problem with this kind of location tracking is that it also permits the insurer to create a detailed log of where a vehicle goes and how long it stays there.
This can theoretically allow the insurance company to sell data to third-parties such as marketing companies to create a revenue stream by providing useful habitual data – such as how often an individual visits a drive-through restaurant or supermarket chain, for example.
This should ring alarm bells, because Allstate, for example, has previously touted plans to sell this kind of data to third-parties such as health insurers, money lenders, credit-rating agencies, marketing firms – or potential future employers.
For the single mother, the student, or the individual who was recently made redundant, for example – it is easy to see how the day-to-day struggle of life could force them to accept this invasion of privacy. It is also easy to see how this results in class-based discrimination.
Those who can afford to pay higher premiums to conceal their habits from insurance companies will have the option to do so – while those with less money will have no option but to succumb to constant tracking.
As a result, those who can't afford privacy will end up being manipulated more often by corporations and advertisers. And they may have to make tough decisions about who they allow into their life – in order to fit into the box that allows them the insurance they can afford.