Today I had a call from LBC's James Max programme following up a Sunday Times article that is, amusingly, behind its paywall. However, you can now get the story from a Daily Mail piece with a five-deck headline: Could your Facebook profile lead to higher insurance premium? Insurers snooping on online activity to calculate costs.
The story is that: "Insurers are planning to introduce 'predictive modelling' schemes -- which monitor online data about people's social life and spending -- in the UK after studying the results of US trials."
The implication is that if you keep posting the gory details of your drunken weekends on Facebook, or whatever, you will pay higher insurance premiums.
However, the real story is much broader. According to Mail Online, Aviva's "protection director" Richard Verdin also told The Sunday Times: "As well as online data collection we are looking at partnerships with banks, supermarkets, gyms and employers to share data with a view to introducing these methods next year."
If insurance companies had access to your Tesco or Waitrose purchases, standing orders and gym data then they really would have a good handle on your lifestyle choices. Today, you can stand in the checkout line with your sausages, bacon, and 6-packs of crisps, pork pies and lager, and you don't have to care what the person behind the till thinks about your lifestyle choices. But to Aviva, you'd clearly be a worse risk than someone buying fish, broccoli, 6-packs of apples and a bottle of red wine.
There's nothing new about profiling. You're obviously going to pay more for car insurance if you're a 19-year-old male and less if you are a 39-year-old female. You'll also pay more for insurance depending on your post code, because companies produce demographics that indicate typical lifestyles for each of these small areas. You'll probably pay more (or less) for some things depending on your job classification, if you have a job. And so on.
In other words, profiling based on your Facebook posts, or what Google says about you, isn't so much a shocking innovation as a continuation of -- and a refinement of -- what companies are doing already.
There's already been endless debate about the dangers of posting things on Facebook, whether they're stupid comments or regrettable pictures or whatever. Drunken students in particular should be wary of posting things that might amuse other drunken students but will not impress the human resources departments of potential employers.
However, there are plenty of things you can do about it. Here are some tips for Facebook:
1. If you want to keep things private, don't be Facebook friends with people with people you don't even know. 2. Go though your privacy settings and restrict access to friends only. 3. Watch what you say. If you want to act daft with a bunch of mad mates, do it in the privacy of a closed user group. 4. Delete all your posts and comments after three or four days. Your friends will have seen them. There's no real point in leaving them around for future girl/boyfriends or potential employers or insurance company data miners. 5. Deactivate your account if you're not using it, or plan not to use it for a short period. Facebook doesn't delete stuff: you can always reactivate your account later.
As for the larger problem of companies profiling you based on activities such as shopping, the main point is not to use loyalty cards, store cards and similar bonus schemes. They're designed precisely to track what you buy. If you pay cash for your pork pies, the supermarket won't be able to tie them to your name and address. The only time to use a loyalty card is when the neighbours ask if you wouldn't mind picking up their bulk order of broccoli....