One of the largest auto insurers in Great Britain has recently enacted a series of premium hikes on some customers. While insurers raise premiums all the time, the reasoning behind the premiums has some consumer advocates alarmed. According to British newspaper The Times, Admiral customers with certain email domains like Hotmail.com pay more for the same insurance policy than customers with other email domains. The biggest takeaway from this story isn’t that Admiral is raising insurance rates for Hotmail users, but that there are still Hotmail users. Who still uses Hotmail? What year is this?
According to The Times, Admiral claimed that policyholders with certain email domains like Hotmail were were “associated with more accidents” than policyholders with other email domains. Customers with Hotmail email domains could see premiums go up by £31, or about $43 USD. Of course, the email domains themselves weren’t the contributing factor to the higher accident rate, but rather another symptom of the causes for both. An Admiral spokesperson says the company uses “a variety of pieces of information to accurately produce a competitive price for our customers” such as age and postcode (zip code). Which age groups likely still use Hotmail in the largest quantities? Figure that one out and you’ll realize why these premiums went up. Cruel justification for a heartless price increase, or a necessary measure to level the playing field and lower costs for less risky customers?
Stories like this show how revolutionary the era of Big Data will be in terms of corporations’ ability to gouge consumers even worse based on all sorts of number crunching. The sheer scale of personal data companies gather on consumers will allow for all sorts of new pricing scales and justifications for higher costs for services like insurance. Certain populations could be singled out not due to any demographic or ethnographic variables, but for data points indirectly related to those variables. For example, a health insurer could claim that individuals who are statistically more likely to develop a certain disease like heart disease must pay higher premiums. Unfortunately, certain ethnic minorities are currently at higher risks of developing certain diseases than majority groups.
See where that could lead? Of course, it could be argued that these are justified by the data, but remember that even that line of reasoning is based on a certain set of values which doesn’t always (or ever) have customers’ best interests, privacy, or equality in mind. Are data becoming the new ethics? More importantly, who still uses Hotmail?