App data in insurance: Admiral & Facebook

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Yesterday began with news of British insurance company Admiral’s move to enhance their insurance pricing using app data collected from the Facebook platform. The Guardian ran a piece highlighting some of the apparent risks that come from using this data. Within three hours of the service’s launch, Facebook had and blocked the scheme.

Despite the attention that this has attracted, the ensuing discussion is often framed in the wrong way. There is a lot of valuable data that Facebook holds on individuals, and it is clear that that information must be safeguarded and used only with transparency and permission. But rather than this being about Admiral conspiring to take advantage of user’s data -- and Facebook standing up for user's rights -- the facts are different. The principle at stake here isn't whether an insurance company can use this data, but whether it is individuals or Facebook who can control how their own data is used.

As Julia Powles wrote last year in the Guardian:

Privacy is about having decisional power, control, over which acts and events of our lives are disclosed and to whom, free from the prying eyes of states, corporations and neighbours. Privacy affords us the freedom to develop ourselves in the world.

Users have had their information stealthily and incrementally collected by Facebook over the years, often in ways that weren’t clear. “Trust us”, founder Mark Zuckerberg famously suggested. In this circumstance, a third-party is trying to innovate and is asking users if they will happily share the data that Facebook has collected on them. Facebook’s position isn't protecting user privacy, but instead stifling innovation and ensuring that they are the only firm to use an individual’s data for service provision. After all, Facebook already has their own patent on using this data to score users’ credit-worthiness and are increasingly exploring other ways to monetise personal data as ad revenue wanes.

In looking to roll out this service, Admiral is seeking to innovate in a way that stands to benefit consumers. They were not proposing to collect data without a user’s permission: users were asked whether they would grant permission for their data to be analysed to take advantage of the service. Privacy advocates decry the collection of this data, but it has already been collected by Facebook, a company that has wrestled with building a robust and consistent approach to data privacy.

There are many positive uses that such data may be put to. From protecting families, making insurance products attainable, helping with proactive diagnosis to spotting discriminative bias. In a world where individuals install ad blockers to prevent their data being captured without transparency or recompense, Admiral’s move to ask permission and provide a benefit as a consequence seems like a healthy step forward. As the UK's Information Commissioner's Office said:

The law says that the use of personal information must be fair. A key part of that fairness is ensuring that people are informed about how their data will be collected and used.

Four large US tech companies — Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft — are increasingly capturing and exploiting data on individuals around the world. Those who position themselves against schemes like the one Admiral proposed aren’t really against Facebook sharing this data with user’s consent: they’re against the tech companies that are collecting this data in the first place. Yet by criticising Admiral’s plans they are helping Facebook to tighten its grip on consumer data in a world where a disproportionate amount of data and power is in the hands of a few. Should it only be unassailable tech companies that run platforms who can create value with this data?

Reincubate’s mission to provide access to data from these app platforms and ecosystems stands to help people make use of it in an open and positive way. It is better that this data be used transparently and with consent, as part of an informed discussion on the value of that data, and that the value from this data be shared and controlled by the people who created it.

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