Three years ago, Microsoft posted something quite odd on its website.
It published a story about how two of its researchers and a former intern were able to detect cases of pancreatic cancer.
It’s not something we’d expect from a software company.
But, sadly, it is something we’d expect from a company that’s storing huge amounts of web data.
You see, these researchers weren’t medical experts. No, they simply tapped into Microsoft’s search engine data and created an algorithm that would pick out the folks who had searched for things that matched the early symptoms of the deadly form of cancer.
In many instances, their tool made a diagnosis before the docs.
For the sick looking to get healthy, it’s quite interesting. Technology is grand.
But with every upside… there’s a downside.
Take, for instance, your life insurer.
This new technology could do wonders for its bottom line.
Facebook vs. the Actuary
The folks who have monetized your heartbeat sure would like to know how long it will be ticking.
They’d love to buy that search data from Microsoft – and probably already have.
But it doesn’t end there. Far from it.
Thanks to a new law out of New York, insurers can now use “nontraditional” sources of data to track their customers.
This includes, of course, the things we do online.
The realm of social media is especially ripe for actuaries.
Everything you brag about to your friends on Facebook helps paint a profile of your past… and presumably your future.
Much of this is obvious.
Post a picture of you and your grandkids jumping out of a plane… your insurer may not like such high-risk activities.
Upload an image of you at the beach smoking a cigar and drinking a Corona… that’s not healthy. Your annual premium may take a hit.
But it’s not just the stuff you post.
What if you use an app to buy some unhealthy convenience food?
That’s all stored in a database these days. And your health insurer won’t be too happy when it finds out about all that fried chicken you’ve been eating.
And what about our Connections?
Your friend may be the one who posts an embarrassing picture of you at a party. Or maybe she posts a 20-year-old picture of the two of you smoking.
The computers searching for this stuff don’t know what’s old and what’s new.
Our research shows that even if you don’t have a social media account, it takes just eight online connections commenting and uploading pictures that include you to create an “accurate” profile of your life.
One insurance website we checked out took things well past the obvious.
It’s where things truly get alarming.
What happens when you post a picture of yourself with a pit bull – a pet that’s been classified as a “bully breed”? You could get dinged for it.
What if you post a picture while driving? Another hit.
And, think about this, will your homeowners insurer like it when you post something to Facebook that shows you’re on vacation… and your house is empty?
It proves that there are all sorts of ways Big Data can track us, penalize us and get a few more bucks out of us.
So what are we to do about it?
Do we toss our computers in the lake and join an Amish commune?
Not yet… but we have been meaning to talk to the young man in the buggy that drives by our farm.
Really, it just takes some smart online practices to stay ahead of most of this.
Whenever possible, use a private browser – especially when you’re searching for something sensitive to your finances or health. (My go-to is DuckDuckGo.)
From there, this should be obvious, make sure all of your online profiles are set to private.
The hard part will be controlling what your friends post online. Tell them not to post things about you without your permission. Make sure they know that you don’t want to be tagged in their “risky” posts. And if they break your rules… cut the electronic cord that binds the two of you.
Another thing that most privacy-minded folks forget about is the fact that our phones and computers know where we are.
We all get those annoying pop-up messages that ask if we’d like to tell a website our location. Say no. Turn off your location services.
Don’t tell Big Data where you are. It can (and will) use it against you.
We’ll wrap up by tackling the biggest concern with all of this.
“Me? I’m Not Worried”
When most folks hear of the tracking that’s starting to happen, they shrug their shoulders and say they’ve got nothing to hide.
That’s likely true.
You’re probably not selling drugs or trafficking illegal turnips online.
That’s good. We like to think we keep noble company.
But your heart is beating… your house is insured… and you eat dinner every night.
Thanks to new laws and new technology, those are now things that can be tracked and held against you.
Make the wrong choices – or simply appear to make the wrong choices – and you will pay.
Technology is useful.
But don’t trade your Liberty for convenience.
It’s a lousy deal… and you’ll never get a refund.
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