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September 20, 2018

Careful: that Instagram Story about our Coffee Habits could Cost Us.

It used to be that when someone started identifying the dangers related to having your private data shared online, most people called them paranoid.

Because who cares if big corporations pay millions to find out about your online habits so they can tailor their advertisements, right?

However, advertising isn’t the only reason why these companies gather your data, and internet users are slowly starting to wise up to this big data exploitation.

Video games like Watch Dogs and other media have touched on this subject and introduced a future world where companies have access to enormous amounts of data which they use to predict a person’s behavior before they act. This results in people being denied various opportunities and being sent to jail before they can even commit a crime.

While we’re not quite there yet, it seems that many businesses are veering toward this route, and insurance companies have essentially made it a central part of their business practice.

So, while you might not be going to jail anytime soon for a crime that you didn’t commit, you could very well be paying exorbitant prices in the future because your insurance company can see how you spend your time, what you eat, and how much exercise you do each day.

You may already feel that health insurance in the United States is ridiculously expensive—and companies are still looking for new ways to charge even higher rates or deny high-risk individuals coverage altogether.

How? By using the power of big data.

If it’s free, you’re the product.

An insurance company predicting when you’ll get sick and billing you in advance may seem like a futuristic concept, but in reality, this is already happening.

Combining predictive analysis with the vast amounts of data gathered from social media and other sources, insurance companies can already predict how big of a health risk you are and how much money you are likely to cost them.

Massive data collection is big business for companies like Facebook, so what you share online today can be easily used against you someday. A popular internet saying bears repeating here: “If a product is free, then you’re the product.”

Even normal online behavior that may seem inconsequential to you may influence the way insurance companies charge you.

For instance, you might not have a problem sharing that you’ve got the beer and chips ready, and are preparing to go on a Netflix binge of the latest series. But imagine that this information gets in the hands of a company whose business it is to make sure you stay healthy.

Information like this gets into predictive analytics software and is used to create a profile on you and your potential health risks. Even data that you don’t necessarily control is used in the prediction, for example, your demographics, the neighborhood you live in, and your marital status (which could lead to a pricey new family member). Or if you like to hang out in coffee shops, then you must drink a lot of coffee, and too much caffeine is bad for your health.

So what’s the solution? They raise your insurance rates.

Paying billions for your data.

A recent NPR report revealed how insurance companies are operating to get hold of your data, and they aren’t even trying to hide it.

While trading in personal data has been banned under strict laws in Europe, it’s still a free game in the U.S. and insurance companies are making the most out of the opportunity.

Conventions, where data brokers and insurance companies shake hands and exchange info, are common because no one really cares that the info they’re sharing might be used to set prices and increase costs. So even with all of the recent backlash on leaking private data, this practice is still alive and well.

Insurance companies are mainly getting your data in two ways: social media and internet service providers (ISPs).

You don’t have to search far to find an example of a social media network sharing their users’ private data. The latest scandal involved Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, but it isn’t the first time something like this has happened, and it certainly isn’t the last.

Whereas social media networks still promise some level of data privacy, ISPs have no problem with selling your data, whether it’s your browsing history or your location, as was evidenced in the Securus location tracking scandal. So while big data means big money, and while insurance companies are willing to pay, your data won’t remain as private as you think.

Social media and ISPs are arguably the biggest avenues of data collection, but they aren’t the only ones that collect data. In fact, any company, app, or website that you willingly share your data with, could be a potential leaking point.

On top of that, we have hackers who constantly attack those who gather and store large amounts of data. Insurance companies make especially attractive targets, and criminals know that.

Protect your health by protecting your data.

By now, you’re probably really eager to find out what you can do to protect yourself. Unfortunately, there’s no 100 percent effective way to keep all of your personal data away from the prying eyes. Companies will always find a way to collect and use your data.

The best way you can protect yourself is to become aware of your digital footprint and be careful with the information you share.

Some other ways you can help reduce the amount of data companies can collect about you include:

Use a VPN: A virtual private network (VPN) is a great way to keep ISPs and other data aggregators from tracking your online activity and browsing history. A VPN creates a virtual IP address for you and encrypts your traffic so ISPs can’t see what exactly you’re up to on the internet.

Change your social media settings: While you might not want to stop using social media entirely, it is better to check the content you share online. Another way to keep your social activity as private as possible is managing your privacy settings. You’ll want to limit public access to your profiles and posts/tweets. Also, revoke access to any third-party apps like photo editors—especially if you’re not using them anymore, because such apps are a big avenue of data leakage. You can also make your Facebook profile completely inaccessible to third-party apps. Lastly, if you don’t want your location shared with data aggregators, then you should uncheck the “tweet with location” option on Twitter and Instagram, and use geotags wisely.

Before sharing any information with an app or a website, read its privacy policy: While most of us just skip the terms and conditions whenever signing up for a new service or downloading a new app, this document is actually an extremely important tool when it comes to protecting your private data. By reading through the terms and conditions, as well as the website’s or company’s privacy policy, you can figure out exactly what data they gather and how they gather it. You can then decide if you’re still comfortable with using the website, service, or app.

Try to find apps and websites that don’t track your data: While this isn’t always an option, finding a paid alternative for a free app or service can go a long way toward protecting your data. Paid services are less likely to sell your data for profit.

~

author: Harold Kilpatrick

Image: Georgie Pauwels/Flickr

Editor: Catherine Monkman

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Harold Kilpatrick

Harold Kilpatrick is a cybersecurity consultant and a freelance blogger. His passion for virtual security extends way back to his early teens when he aided his local public library in setting up their antivirus software. Currently, Harold’s working on cybersecurity campaign to raise awareness regarding virtual threats that businesses have to face on a daily basis.