Facebook blocks Admiral from reading posts to judge if customers are safe drivers

Algorithm would have judged certain words and punctuation to demonstrate overconfidence, a trait which leads to bad driving

Ben Chapman
Wednesday 02 November 2016 14:45 GMT
Facebook posts that contain lists and set concrete times for meeting friends may indicate a more careful driver
Facebook posts that contain lists and set concrete times for meeting friends may indicate a more careful driver (Reuters)

Facebook has blocked one of Britain’s biggest insurance companies from looking at people’s Facebook posts to price their car insurance premiums.

Admiral Insurance designed an algorithm to rate drivers for “safe” traits such as conscientiousness or organisation, based on how they interact with their friends and family on social media.

Under the new system, customers judged by the the company’s computer to have reckless personalities were set to pay higher premiums than those deemed to be safe drivers.

But Facebook has said the app will be in breach of its terms if it uses personal data to set prices.

A Facebook spokeperson said: “Protecting the privacy of the people on Facebook is of utmost importance to us. We have clear guidelines that prevent information being obtained from Facebook from being used to make decisions about eligibility.

We have made sure anyone using this app is protected by our guidelines and that no Facebook user data is used to assess their eligibility. Facebook accounts will only be used for login and verification purposes.

Our understanding is that Admiral will then ask users who sign up to answer questions which will be used to assess their eligibility.”

Admiral said reading social media posts allows it to judge how big a risk customers pose. Those who write lists, set a concrete time and place to meet friends and write in short, specific sentences, could be deemed to have the personality of a safer driver, the company suggested.

Conversely, excessive use of exclamation marks could be seen by the computer as “overconfident”, as could liberal use of words like “always” or “never” instead of the more measured, “maybe”.

Initially, only first-time drivers will be targeted by the pilot called firstcarquote, which is voluntary.

Yossi Borenstein, the principal data scientist behind the project told The Guardian that the system “could be revolutionary. It could be truly transformational.”

He added: “Our analysis is not based on any one specific model, but rather on thousands of different combinations of likes, words and phrases and is constantly changing with new evidence that we obtain from the data. As such our calculations reflect how drivers generally behave on social media, and how predictive that is, as opposed to fixed assumptions about what a safe driver may look like.”

Privacy campaigners have said the move is part of a drive to gather increasingly personal data about people and questioned whether it would be effective or even legal.

“If you are messy, does that make you an erratic driver?,” asked Renate Samson, chief executive of Big Brother Watch. “If you’re clean and tidy and don’t go to parties does that make you a good driver? Is a hot-head more likely to have a crash?

“There are no historic answers to these questions, so why all of a sudden does a company think they can be answered by a computer?

Samson said she believed the innovation was a ploy to get young people to hand over even more of their data. “The insurance companies think all young people are happy to share everything online with businesses, but they are more savvy than that,” Samson said. "People shouldn't have to hand over such personal information just to get a good deal on their insurance."

Laws to be introduced in 2018 prevent companies from using personal data to build a profile of users. The full details of firstcarquote aren’t yet known but mining people’s social media profiles to establish personality traits would apparently be banned.

The scheme may also breach Facebook’s own privacy policy which says: “Don't use data obtained from Facebook to make decisions about eligibility, including whether to approve or reject an application or how much interest to charge on a loan.”

The pilot, which was due to launch today but has been delayed while Admiral addresses what it describes as “a few outstanding issues”.

The Independent has contacted Admiral Insurance for comment.

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