New US Patent for Allstate Threatens to Turn Privacy into Road Kill on the Information Highway [Interview]

171bac9115e18a444d7163760ba9c613xIn late March, Allstate was issued US Patent No. 2014/0080100 A1 with the relatively innocuous title of “Motor Vehicle Operating Data Collection Analysis” (see below).

The legalese that is typically used in patent applications obscures some of the potentially invasive aspects of this patent. Here’s the text from the abstract (or summary) of the patent:

A method and apparatus for collecting and evaluating powered vehicle operation utilizing on-board diagnostic components and location determining components or systems. The invention creates one or more databases whereby identifiable data behavior or evaluative characteristics can be analyzed or categorized. The evaluation can include predicting likely future events. The database can be correlated or evaluated with other databases for a wide variety of uses.

This patent was brought to my attention by Becky Yerak (@beckyyerak), the Business Reporter for the Chicago Tribune, who interviwed me about some of the privacy implications. She wrote an excellent piece on the patent for the Friday, June 19 edition of the Chicago Tribune.

The basic concept of the patent is straightforward: Various devices already installed in many motor vehicles can collect a wide range of data about how the vehicle is being operated — location, speed, acceleration, braking, etc. What Allstate proposes to do is to take that real-time information (collected in 2-second slices) and correlate it to other pre-existing databases.

This is where things get interesting. One of the databases that Allstate specifically references, for instance, is a national compilation of street names and speed limits. What this suggests is that Allstate will be able to calculate in real time whether drivers are adhering to each and every speed limit during a trip. The patent describes various methodologies for analyzing the data; a CPU might be installed in the vehicle itself, the data could be transmitted wirelessly while the vehicle is in motion, or it could be stored and then downloaded at regular intervals.

Over time, the processes described in the patent can compile significant data about an individual driver, which an inusurance company such as Allstate can use to determine a “Driver Safety Record.” In addition, the data can reveal highly granular information about how a vehicle is being operated:

Changes of vehicle position between intervals where there is no recorded vehicle speed, particularly in conjunction with immediate prior deceleration, may indicate that the vehicle is skidding. Minimal change in vehicle position relative to rapid acceleration may indicate the vehicle is being operated without sufficient traction, i.e., “spinning the wheels” or “pealing [sic] rubber.”

Putting aside the homophonic error, this passage offers a chilling insight into just how specific the data analysis will be. What makes it even more frightening is that the Allstate patent contemplates not merely analyzing a driver’s past behavior but using the collected data to predict the future. The language may be dry but the import is Orwellian: “The predicted likely future behavior may be future driving or, with careful or sophisticated evaluation of data, may be predictive of other behavior.” You’ve probably seen the movie “Minority Report,” but if you haven’t, it’s worth watching:

Allstate claims that it is possible to discern “common behavior traits” from a driver’s operation of their car. That information, Allstate suggests, may be applicable to other aspects of the driver’s life, and might be of interest to non-automotive retailers and service providers:

It will be readily appreciated that an individual that can demonstrate a history of prudent driving in combination with prudent spending and use of credit may be part of an ideal target market of certain goods and services.

This patent is merely the tip of a vast and unexplored iceberg. I am sure that I will be writing about similar issues in the future. The bottom line is that corporations are highly motivated to refine data mining techniques for two specific but related purposes: first, the reduction of liability (either through the prevention of losses or the transference of culpability) and second, the increasingly efficient targeting of advertisements. The more data that can be collected and analyzed, the more successfully those goals will be met.

Left rotting on the side of the Information Highway is the carcass of individual privacy.

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