What if your Twitter posts, your buying habits, and the zip code you live in determined the amount you paid for your medical insurance? Seems ludicrous, but it may already be happening.
At San Diego’s big health insurance industry convention last month, a few booths were pitching “lifestyle data” as “social determinants of health.” In other words, these data collecting companies were selling personal non-health related information to insurance companies, and the insurance companies are using that information to decide exactly what type of risks applicants pose to their profit margins.
“The companies are tracking your race, education level, TV habits, marital status, net worth. They’re collecting what you post on social media, whether you’re behind on your bills, what you order online. Then they feed this information into a complicated computer algorithms that spit out predictions about how much your health care could cost them.”
But they aren’t just taking your data at face value, they are making inferences into what your purchases or life circumstance could mean, for example, a woman that buys plus-sized clothing could be at higher risk for depression. Yet, a person’s purchasing habits do not necessarily paint an accurate picture of their health status, and patient advocates worry that insurance companies use of “lifestyle” data could lead to discrimination and companies raising rates on individuals or certain groups simply because an algorithm places them in a high risk bracket.
The health insurance companies claim they are only using socioeconomic and other types of personal data to “help patients get appropriate care,” but patient advocates remain skeptical. After all, this is an industry that already has a habit of “cherry-picking’ healthy people, something which is technically illegal, using methods like putting their office on the third floor of a building with no elevator so only people able to climb the stairs can sign up for a policy.
Erin Kaufman, a former Aetna employee, was asked to merge personal data on millions of people, things like whether or not they owned a gun or if they liked to crochet, with the health information Aetna already had on file. The goal was to compare and contrast a person’s health costs with their hobbies. “It was a dataset that really dug into our clients’ lives. No one gave anyone permission to do this,” Kaufman said. That is really the point though, isn’t it? Intimate details of people’s private lives are being sold to companies in order for them to pad their bottom line, and no one is asking anyone for permission. The data-farming could have long-term, life-altering consequences, especially when the healthcare industry is involved, and there aren’t enough standards or measures in place to protect vulnerable citizens.