Chicago telematics insurance conference – review discussion: Is the industry getting the privacy issue wrong?

In the first of a series of reviews of the recent insurance telematics conference (Chicago Sept 4-5) we ask if the industry is in danger of getting the privacy issue back-to-front.

The conventional approach to privacy issues is summed up in the phrase – ‘Privacy – are, that’s for the old folks’. Young people, goes the conventional wisdom, with everyday use of social media, are completely at ease with broadcasting personal information to all and sundry – or at least, if they have qualms, then these can be simply managed.
But research published in the week of the conference by a completely independent American foundation paints the reverse of this picture – young people are very concerned about privacy issues (and want to do things about it) in contrast to the more relaxed attitudes of older people.
The conventional picture – as presented to the conference by the international consultant A T Kearney in a report reviewed on this website here – goes as follows:

The barriers in this market can seem daunting, particularly customer privacy. The continued struggles in conquering this problem have kept the market from growing as rapidly as expected.
Many customers remain reluctant to install a ‘black box’ in their vehicles lest they be watched by ‘Big Brother’. However we don’t believe this is an unsolvable problem for insurers.
…the success of other industries indicates that people are willingly divulging their personal information in many different areas, despite their qualms. Social networking sites such as Facebook have gained hundreds of millions of users, internet banking and on-line credit card use have become prominent if not standard, and most cell phone users don’t worry about their phone holding location information.

Now along comes research from the Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends project which ‘studies behaviors and attitudes of Americans in key realms of their lives‘.
On September 5 it published its report: Anonymity, Privacy, and Security Online.

This merits careful study. The opening words are:

‘In word and deed, most Americans would like the ability to be anonymous and untracked online at least every once in a while.’

It concludes:

`A clear majority—59%—say that people should have the ability to use the internet completely anonymously. When internet users are directly asked, 18% say they use the internet in a way that hides or masks their identity. Yet when a broader battery of activities about masking behavior or content is asked of respondents, 81% say they do at least one of these obscuring activities.´

The extent of privacy seeking is remarkable:

`All told, 86% of internet users have tried to be anonymous online and taken at least one step to try to mask their behavior or avoid being tracked. The most common strategy was to clear cookies and browser history. Yet, notable numbers have taken even more sophisticated steps, such as encrypting their email (done by 14% of internet users) or used  virtual personal network or proxy server, like Tor software1, that does not allow firms to track their online movements (also done by 14% of internet users).´

Recall the remark made about cell (mobile) phone use quoted by Kearney? – here is what Pew found:

`In all, 81% of internet users or smartphone owners said they had employed at least one of the eleven strategies we queried. Many had employed multiple strategies. The average anonymity seeker had used between 3 and 4 of these strategies at one time or another.´

And as for age (recall – young people are conventionally not thought to worry about privacy?) Pew found:

`The most consistent differences in masking strategies are tied to age. The youngest adults (those ages 18-29) are more likely than their elders to take steps to be hidden online … The one activity where the differences did not show up in a stark way involved encrypting email. Internet users of all ages under 65 were equally likely to have done that´

There are interesting gender differences:

The most striking differences on this question were between men and women. While majorities in both genders do not think it is possible to be completely anonymous online, women were more likely than men to say it is not possible to be completely anonymous online (64% vs. 54%).

And important class (or net family income) differences. Pew noted:

In addition to the age differences when it comes to these problems, there are also times when poorer internet users are among the most likely to be victimized. For instance, the internet users who live in households earning less than $30,000 are particularly likely to have suffered a problem from their online activities…

As we say, the full report repays careful study. The answer will lay in a new regulatory framework. As Pew found ‘users do not think current laws provide enough protections’:

Asked whether they think current privacy laws provide reasonable protections for people’s privacy on their online activities, 66% of all adults said the laws are “not good enough.” Some 24% said they provide reasonable protection.

Interestingly, there are not noteworthy differences in answers to this question associated with political or partisan points of view. Tea Party supporters, conservative Republicans, self-described moderates, and liberal Democrats are not statistically significantly different in their answers.

Full report here
Further reviews of issues raised at Chicago will be found here.

    Jonathan Coe, Editor

    Journalist and comms specialist for over 40 years – trained in print, broadcasting, and industrial intranet. Written about comms policy (eg. as radio editor at Time Out); held senior comms roles in public bodies (National Health Service, local government) and privatised undertakings (London Electricity – now Electricité de France). Since, has developed interests in the ordinary citizen's use of judicial review to challenge irrational decisions of government and the use of rights (like the Freedom of Information Act) to explore irrational decisions (like the BBC's original decision to close the BBC digital radio service BBC 6 Music).

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