What Was Really Going On with This Insurance Company 'Basing Premiums On Your Facebook Posts'?

There's a lot to this story that doesn't add up.

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02 November 2016, 10:48am

Eugh, I really don't want to be that guy – that "woah Black Mirror is already here guy", because that guy uses Linux and has a bit of tape over his Macbook camera and has recently re-ordered his top 10 Radiohead albums playlist. But sorry,Black Mirror is already here.

In the first episode of this season, "Nosedive", everyone rates everyone, like Uber ratings but for human beings. There's a bit where the main character tries to rent a car but she can't get a good one because her social media "score" is too low. Well, this morning, Admiral car insurance said they will analyse first-time drivers' Facebook posts in order to judge their premiums. They set up a new company "First Car Quote" to do it, just for drivers aged 21 and under.

You can only log into the First Car Quote app using Facebook, at which point they can start scanning your data. Admiral explains:

"We already know social media posts can tell us whether a person is a good or a bad credit risk and this is true for cars too. It's scientifically proven that some personalities are more likely to have an accident than others. But standard insurance questions don't tend to measure personality. At firstcarquote, we look at a driver's personality by analysing some of their Facebook data and if we see indicators that you will be a careful driver..."

According to the Guardian, the things they're looking for are subtle and bizarre. They include "writing in short concrete sentences, using lists and arranging to meet friends at a set time and place, rather than just 'tonight'".

They also say "the use of exclamation marks and the frequent use of 'always' or 'never' rather than 'maybe' will count against them".

Facebook has already released a statement saying that doing this would violate its terms of service, and immediately disabled the app. Admiral has said it's "delaying" the launch and is working with Facebook to get it back and up running.

All of which has a big whiff of bullshit to it. For a start, there's no way Admiral, an insurance company, would have launched this scheme without lawyering the fuck out of it, as well as considering the potential PR issues. The disagreement with Facebook's user agreement would certainly have come up.

Also, who makes specific plans with friends on publicly available Facebook comments? That would be a dangerous and stupid use of Facebook, which allows for private messages. Anyone who leaves a comment on someone's wall that says "meet at 9PM down the dark alley behind the graveyard", I would imagine, is far more likely to be a dangerous driver, because they are an idiot.

The larger point is that social media is unlikely to be a good reflection of someone's personality, never mind how they drive: I can start emails "Dear sir" and start status updates "Looooool"; it doesn't say much about me as a person. Admiral claims it has plenty of research that driving ability can be linked to social media language, but it must all be secret research because I've just done a fairly thorough search of Google Scholar and can't find a single scholarly article with even a whiff of that kind of research (although there are plenty about using social media whiledriving). There are separately, papers that link personality to driving ability and papers that link social media language to personality. But it's a huge leap to go from that, to people that overuse the word "always"are worse drivers.

A lot of the quotes about driver behaviour that Admiral sent out come from "independent advisor Yossi Borenstein". He says stuff like: "An overconfident person will use phrases such as 'always', 'never' and exclamation marks ... An overconfident person might be a risky driver." As far as I can tell, though, Yossi has no background in driving safety. His other endeavours seem to be working on an app for art galleries and a book about the computer science field of metaheuristics. All he is saying is that overconfident people use more certain language (quite possible) and that this may be linked to driving (completely unproven).

We emailed Yossi, who would only pass us on to a press officer for Admiral, who wouldn't answer questions about where the research came from. She only provided a prepared statement which said:

"Firstcarquote, which will allow first time drivers to voluntarily share some social data with insurers for a simple and discounted quote, is currently a beta product...following discussions with Facebook the product is launching with reduced functionality, allowing first time drivers to login using Facebook and share some information to secure a faster, simpler and discounted quote."

I'm not normally a fan of people who think everything is a publicity stunt, but I think we should entertain the possibility that Admiral was planning to launch a fairly standard new app for first time drivers and was looking for a way to cause a bit of a media splash about it, knowing full well that element of it would be shut down. Is it even out of the question that someone at the company's marketing department watched Black Mirror and thought, 'I know what we can do'? They've certainly tapped into a lot of public fears about social media, and the story has had wide coverage today – much more than the launch of an insurance app ever would.

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