Allstate Decides the Data in Your Car Is Not Enough [Interview]

171bac9115e18a444d7163760ba9c613xEarlier this summer, I was interviewed by by Becky Yerak (@beckyyerak), the Business Reporter for the Chicago Tribune, about a patent issued to Allstate Insurance Company under the innocuous-sounding name “Motor Vehicle Operating Data Collection Analysis.” As I wrote at the time, the patent raises significant privacy issues. If you want to get the most efficient insurance company check out One Sure Insurance for more ifno.

Last week, I was interviewed again by Yerak about a new Allstate patent that raises additional privacy concerns. Her story, entitled “‘Spy car’ worries raised by new Allstate patent,” ran in the Chicago Tribune on August 27.

The patent, entitled “Motor Vehicle Data Collection and Analysis (No. 9,053,591 B2), takes the concepts described in the March patent and expands upon them in several significant ways. The patent abstract offers a spoiler alert for some of the applications contemplated:

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 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.

The patent in question is a continuation of the patent that was awarded in June. What makes this application different is that it expands upon both the data to be collected directly from Allstate’s insured drivers and the databases which will be cross-referenced with the data Allstate collects.

As Allstate observed in its application,

The existing systems and devices also ignore the profound behavioral characteristics exhibited by drivers in operating motor vehicles, e.g., aggressiveness or patience, caution or recklessness, compliance with laws, etc. These characteristics are relevant to each individual’s behavior in other situations including performance of job duties, behavior in stress, and meeting obligations owed to others. These behaviors cannot be ascertained unless the information is uploaded to a central server to create a comprehensive database for comparison and development of useful profiles. Existing technology applications do not centrally store the data and interpret it in context to provide a useful service to society.

In order to address those omissions, Allstate proposes collecting detailed information about the operation of each of its insured vehicles and uploading that data to a central server, where it can be analyzed and compared to other relevant databases. For instance, how fast is the driver going relative to the speed limit on each stretch of the road? What are the weather conditions where the driver is operating? How are other nearby drivers operating their cars? Are there distractions within the driver’s car? How does the driver’s behavior change over time? What physiological issues might affect his or her driving?

The Allstate patent specifically contemplates a world in which our driving performance will be perpetually judged against a wide range of extenal criteria:

Since the data may be time marked with an accurate atomic clock signal, the data can be cross-correlated to another information database that is also time or location specific. This data could include weather events, construction schedules, sporting events, traffic databases, and other time or location dependent information that puts the driver operating data in context and makes it objectively useful. The data manipulation -analysis includes assessing the driver’s driving behavior by putting the data in context with the applicable local speed laws, signage, traffic signals, weather, and other geographic dependencies (“GIS” data).

Inevitably, the primary use of such data analysis will be to impose heavier penalties on drivers who routinely exhibit risky behavior. That could have a salutory effect of reducing insurance rates on safer drivers by more precisely assigning the costs of insurance to riskier drivers. In addition, as I said in my interview with Becky Yerak, there is the potential for insurers to gain a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of how the world actually works. For instance, the speed limit on a particular stretch of highway may be 65 miles per hour, but it may well be unsafe to drive at that speed, when every other car in the vicinity is going 70 or 75 miles per hour. If, as the patent contemplates, data can be collected about the operation of other vehicles, the assessment of a given driver’s driving habits may be significantly more realistic.

Among the points I made in my interview is the fact that increasingly, our relationship with corporations such as Allstate will be determined by alogorithms and data thresholds over which we have little or no control. I think the long-term consequences are disturbing;

It would be great to have more transparency regarding the establishment of digital thresholds and the programming of decision-making algorithms. The problem, of course, is that such information typically falls into the category of “trade secrets.” A long-range concern is the growing power — utterly non-democratic — that corporations will have over various aspects of our lives. My fondness for dystopian literature notwithstanding, this is a real and significant concern. Ironically, capitalism and democracy are both predicated on the ability of consumers/voters to makes choices based on information; theoretically, more information leads to better choices. But both corporations and politicians often strive to reduce the amount of information available about how things get done and how decisions are made. That trend raises existentialist questions for democracy and capitalism.

There is no point in attempting to stop or even slow the development and implementation of technology designed to collect and analyze data about our behavior. What is needed are strong laws to provide transparency regarding what is collected and how it is used. I’m sure Congress will get right on it.

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