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article imageFacebook bans car insurer from using data to calculate premiums

By James Walker     Nov 2, 2016 in Technology
Facebook has blocked a U.K. car insurer's plans to use data from profiles on the social network to calculate premiums. The company pulled the app, created by insurer Admiral, with just hours before it was set to launch in a highly public campaign.
This morning, Admiral Insurance announced an innovative new service called firstcarquote. The company said it would analyse the Facebook accounts of new car drivers to look for personality traits linked to safe driving. Admiral would then offer discounts to individuals its algorithms deemed to be responsible on the road. The plans were slammed by privacy advocates and consumer rights groups.
Admiral said it would only use the data to lower prices. The app would deliver discounts of up to £350 after examining posts and likes made by the Facebook user. It would not push premiums up if it detected potentially risky or overconfident posts.
Examples of posts considered to be responsible included writing in short and matter-of-fact sentences, using lists and scheduling meet-ups with friends at a defined time and place. People who frequently used exclamation marks, superlatives and indications of confidence and certainty, such as "always" and "never" would receive a smaller discount. Likewise, arranging to meet a group of friends at a vague time like "tonight" or "tomorrow" would also be treated negatively.
The voluntary service was due to launch today. However, hours before it was set to go live, Facebook stepped in to revoke the app's access as privacy campaigners criticised the "intrusive" attempt to analyse personal data. Facebook has blocked the app because it directly contravenes its platform policy. Section 3.15 of the rules all developers must abide by states Facebook data must not be used to "make decisions about eligibility, including whether to approve or reject an application or how much interest to charge on a loan."
Admiral told the Guardian it had discussed the situation with Facebook. It now intends to launch a version of the service with "reduced functionality" that will be less reliant on profile posts. While the company sounds positive, clarification from Facebook suggests the app will bear little resemblance to the original concept. Users will be able to sign-in with their Facebook accounts but do little more.
"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," said Facebook. "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."
Prior to the ban, Admiral had been criticised by consumer rights groups, privacy advocates and law firms. Mr Killock, of the Open Rights Group, told the BBC that the use of algorithms could perpetuate social biases that are based on "race, gender, religion or sexuality," noting that fears of having to pay more for key services could lead to "self-censorship" of future social media posts.
Dan Mines, firstcarquote's project leader, insisted the app is "incredibly transparent" and should not be treated as a privacy concern. "If you don't want to use it in a quote then you don't have to," he said. "We are doing our best to build a product that allows young people to identify themselves as safe drivers."
For now, firstcarquote remains unlaunched while Admiral rebuilds the app. Facebook's intervention shows it will not tolerate financial businesses accessing its users' data to generate quotes and bills. It has been interpreted as a demonstration of power from a company that itself is regularly criticised for its approach to user privacy.
The whole incident also serves as a reminder to developers to check platform rules before creating new apps. Admiral isn't the first company to have its launch thwarted by not reading the small print. It's unlikely it'll be the last.
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