Those of us who care about privacy issues spend a lot of time conjuring up stories about potential future disasters in an effort to focus attention on today’s dry policy decisions. If we don’t act now, one day, ordering ice cream will raise your health insurance rates; listening to this kind of music will make you unemployable; looking at that website will get you arrested by the Department of Pre-Crime, that kind of thing. Well, we don’t have to conjure up stories any more.
Old-world life insurance company John Hancock announced this week that it’s cutting off customers who don’t agree to wear a fitbit or similar device to prove they are trying to be healthy. Get on the treadmill, or your rates are going up…or worse yet, the firm won’t work with you at all.
The new standard goes by the cute name “interactive life insurance.” And, as is the methodology with all insurance products, it’s being framed as a discount, not a fee. Consumers who work out get gift cards! And it’s marketed as a vitality program, designed to help consumers be healthier. Of course, that’s just a different way of saying “Sacrifice your most personal information, or we won’t work with you.”
There’s nothing wrong with encouraging healthy behavior. I’m all for that. And I have no doubt this works to some extent. I do doubt it works as well as John Hancock says it does. According to Reuters, Brooks Tingle, head of John Hancock’s insurance unit, said Vitality policyholders worldwide live 13 to 21 years longer than the rest of the insured population. I’m going to guess there’s a few more undisclosed variables at play in that calculation.
There’s a way to do this that doesn’t require consumers to digitally connect their hearts to a private company’s servers, however. We haven’t even started that conversation. So let’s begin here. What happens to this data? What else could it be used for? Can John Hancock sell it? Can the government access it (Yes!)? Could a divorce lawyer access it (Yes!)? Will it be stored forever (I’d bet so). All these challenges come about because the U.S. still has no reasonable rules around consumer data collection and ownership.
We all know where this ends. Life insurance companies will refuse to work with unhealthy people, as health insurance companies did with pre-existing conditions. That abomination only ended when Congress declared it illegal. John Hancock told Reuters that extreme scenarios like this will not occur because the insurance industry is heavily regulated. That’s true, but less true of life insurance. And do you trust state regulators to be privacy experts, and ensure that fitbit requirements begin and end with a gift card?
Don’t blame John Hancock. It’s a business doing what businesses do — attract the most profitable consumers and push away the expensive ones. In fact, I’d like that thank the firm for making people like me sound less crazy when we warn about unemployable rap music fans. Blame our government for being decades behind is setting fair rules of play for new technologies. Time to get to work, or we will indeed have a Department of Pre-Crime soon.