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The company you keep

clown-car.pngIn mid-1980s Ireland, I called an insurer in response to an ad for discount car insurance for female drivers who covered less than some relatively modest number of miles a year. I fit the parameters in the ad, which was why I called. As a matter of routine, they asked what I did for a living. In the US, all anyone ever wanted to know was how many miles you drove a year and whether your license was clean. But I knew that in Britain, if you wanted to be refused insurance or charged an outlandishly high premium your best shot was to tell them you were a musician. I thought Ireland was probably the same. So I said, "I'm a writer." It was in fact what I was spending my time doing, but at the time I was unpublished, with no clarity about when or whether that situation might change. So I was telling them the profession I hoped I was transitioning to.

They immediately said I didn't qualify for the program because writers were high-risk.


He explained: "You moight wroite a bestseller, and it moight make you famous. And then you moight meet other famous people, and some of them moight roide in yer carr. And you moight have an accident. And those kind [sic] of people sue for greater damages than anyone else." So, that's how many hypotheticals there? I said, "Couldn't you insure me for now and review it if and when I get published?"

Apparently not.

So, now, This week in the UK, Admiral Insurance (of which I had never heard) announced a first car quote" scheme aimed at 17-to-21-year-olds that would trade a hefty discount on their premiums in return for letting the company rummage around in their Facebook profiles to develop a "personality-based risk assessment" score that would indicate whether they were likely to be a safe driver. In the West, young people are an obvious target market for this: an average 18-year-old probably has at least five years of temptingly minable Facebook history. The company had to pull the idea two hours before launch when Facebook pointed out that the plan violated Facebook's terms and conditions.

I understand the appeal. The insurance industry makes a lot of assumptions about young drivers, most of them unfavorable, particularly for boys: they're stereotyped as inexperienced, riddled with hormones, none too bright about decision-making and risk-analysis, and prone to driving irresponsibly and experimenting with drugs and alcohol. So, to an 18-year-old boy with a social graph indicating that he and his friends like to stay in at night, play chess, drink water, and watch the news, the idea of being able to get credit for seeming to be responsible and low-risk has to be appealing. I have no idea whether there's any evidence to indicate that such scoring has much validity; I doubt it.

The idea has a lot in common with some of the age verification mechanisms we saw demonstrated a few weeks back. Also with: efforts in Africa to find ways to assess credit-worthiness among populations that have none of the traditional Western markers. And with: the report in August that US Customs and Border Protection is asking for the right to demand "social media identifiers" to the forms filled out by international travelers visiting the US. We think of our social media data as private; law enforcement folks refer to it as "open source".

Thumbnail image for NizanPic.jpgIt was this approach that led Nizan Geslevich-Packin and Yafit Lev-Aretz to suggest in a workshop paper last spring that there should be a right to be unnetworked.

It's easy to be cynical about Facebook's motives for stomping on this. You can say: Facebook wants to keep user data for itself to mine and monetize. Or: Facebook knows it will lose user engagement if everyone's busy sanitizing their profiles to suit insurers, age verifiers, and credit-scorers. Or even: Facebook knows people won't play in its sandbox any more if they fear their friends will use them as references without their consent.

It's the last of these that seems to me a crucial point: when you grant some third party the right to profile you for a small benefit to yourself you are inevitably exposing and exploiting your friends and family's data. It's a little like getting one of those security clearances where they interview your family and friends looking for things that would leave you open to blackmail - except without the explicit permission or active participation.

We do not yet have social conventions that cover this, in part because we continue to frame privacy as an individual right instead of a collaborative activity.

Besides the issues many others have raised, there's this: proposals like this undermine freedom of association, which in the US is a First Amendment right ("Congress may make no law..."). As the framers knew, mixing freely with other people is an essential part of freedom of speech. Recent articles have focused on the way we are increasingly sorting ourselves into enclaves that barely understand each other's point of view, a situation that is increasingly toxic for societies and their politics.

Admiral won't be the last company to attempt something like this. Even if individuals do not care about guarding their own privacy, the wider social good requires us all to resist.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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