A Tech Too Far

Always read the fine print. Actually, scrap that. Don’t bother. You don’t read it. I don’t read it. We all want facebook on our phones. And whatsapp. And Instagram. These things are tools of the modern age. These services provide that “connectivity” that people have been lauding. And besides, if you don’t agree with sharing your pictures, snippets of your voice picked up by microphone and data on where you live and your viewing habits, well, facebook, Whatsapp and instagram don’t want you.

No, wait. Go back to the fine print. You can choose to “out” of these options. And it is definitely for the best. Why? Well, let’s have a look.

Andy Jones, who wrote an article on behalf of the ‘i’ newspaper titled “Why your social media activity could stop you getting a mortgage” scared the s#!t out of me.

Released today (21st September, 2018), Andy reported that mortgage providers and insurance firms are trialling the use of social media services on people who are seeking their services. No longer will providers request information from banks on your spending habits, but they will look at your viewing history as well.

“Promoting their service, The Online Me, Hello Soda says: “Every time you make a submission for a loan, a house, or a job, someone is vetting your social profiles.” That’s about as comforting as the thought of a stranger standing at the end of your bed.

HMRC, that scourge of the commoner and hero of the super-rich (see upcoming blog) openly says it will “observe, monitor, record and retain internet data” which is available to everyone including “blogs and social networking sites where no privacy settings have been applied.”’

The reason that mortgage lenders and insurance companies plan to do this is because they will better get an insight into your history, your holidays, how you spend your money and so forth. If you are holidaying every month and you’re not rolling in spondulicks then they would bring in a bunch of sun-deprived voyeurs to do a thorough search. When I read that article my immediate thought was: what does my social media say about me?

You see the danger of this now?
Imagine, in a society in the not so distant future, that you go on your annual family holiday and take a picture of the whole lot of you by the pool. And then you get home and apply for home insurance. Your case is decided by someone in an office clicking their way around your facebook profile.

How did they pay for that holiday? Was it with credit? Do they have a credit card? How do they pay that money back? How often? Have they missed any payments? Did they pay for it using nectar points or clubcard points? Let’s look at that image, where did they go? They had their locations settings on when they posted. That’s handy. Spain! Aha, okay. South east Spain. A villa. Aha! Less than five minutes from the sea. On a hilltop. I bet they paid extra for that view. How much was it exactly? Okay, let’s backtrack. Where does this person live? Eastbourne? Hmm… best do a google map search and see what kind of house they have.

If you think I’m dancing with hyperbole, I’m really not. The searches undertaken by the HMRC could “include anything from evidence of lavish spending on faceback to Google Earth pictures proving you have had an extension.” Forget that you paid for that extension with cash that your grandma left you, you have had the extension and that is what matters.

Imagine you wanted to travel the world. You want to have a bunch of adventures and when you get back you want to buy a house. You want life insurance. If something were to happen to you, your partner or the person with their name on your will no longer have to worry that they cannot pay for that house. You will get back from travelling and post a travel album. There you are smiling on top of Kilimanjaro. And an insurance company now has the rights to check out your lifestyle as part of their cover.

Cue the person considering your case, clocking in, sitting at their computer, clicking a few buttons and having access to your profiles.

Ah, they like expensive hikes. Is that jacket North Face? Hmm, that looks like specialist gear to me. Perhaps they spend frivolously. That would have to be taken into consideration.

There you are, arms wide at the top of a cliff, embracing the world with the wind in your hair.

Hmm, what does that say about them? They are after life insurance after all. I’ll put in the report: “likes to take risks”. It’ll likely increase their premiums but it is for the best.

And there you are strapped to another human being as you plummet toward the earth, smiling at the camera, enjoying one of the best, most thrilling and memorable moments you will ever experience.

Okay, wow. Skydiving in New Zealand! I’ll put: “Puts themselves in harm’s way. Likes extreme sports. Higher risk of injury or casualty.”

This is purely speculative, I cannot stress that enough. But I am, however, convinced that insurance companies are becoming more malign in their actions.

In 2016 I purchased insurance for my car. Fire and theft were included. In 2017 I used a comparison site in order to find my next insurer. I found one I liked and went to their page. After answering the questions I was met with that usual five to eight pages that ask you what extras you might like to include in your policy i.e. breakdown cover, jelly-bean scent, you name it. On the first page it asked me if I wanted to include fire and theft for an extra fee. That raises two questions. The first: why was that not included? Second, why are they charging extra for something that should already be included in everyone’s insurance plan?

It is common knowledge that companies are purchasing data. Fintech is a flourishing sector and the more personal it becomes, the more effective it becomes. And the easier it becomes to separate consumers from their money. I’ll be honest, I love when Man-Booker Prize winners are announced. I know that I am probably going to buy the latest winner and probably a couple more authored by the runners-up. If these books have been shortlisted for the most prestigious award in the world of literature…I want them.
That time of the year would be an easy target for advertisers. Waterstones, Amazon, Foyles, it does not matter. I would probably be susceptible.

Let us go back to that annual family holiday. It takes place in the same few weeks every year (as most peoples do considering families are limited to school term times). You have been targeted by a whole bunch of advertisers and marketing companies putting forward things you may or may not need for your holiday. But the fear is that it could get even more personal. If an algorithm can detect brands in the photos you post, you may be directed deals from that brand in the future. Your taste in cars, motorbikes, foods, jewellery, clothes. It can all be used in order to entice people to purchase goods they do not need. But when advertisements are tailor-made around your lifestyle it would become considerably harder to resist.

When I have looked at travel destinations on google, I often get suggestions afterward on places to go and gear to buy on what I recently believed were unconnected pages i.e. pinterest and instagram. This is something that anyone with a social media account experiences day-to-day.

The things that I have mentioned are not some strange conspiracy in which the “establishment” are dominating the world, it is just the future of marketing and risk management. As Rana Foroohar says in the Financial Times post (17th September, 2018) when reporting on a senate meeting regarding fintech, the Treasury “talks approvingly of data sharing among technology companies and big banks to improve efficiency, scale and lower consumer prices.

“The report puts rather less focus on the on the systemic risk and predatory pricing that could emerge if the world’s largest technology companies and the biggest banks on Wall Street share consumer data.”

As mentioned above, this is the possible future of marketing and risk management. But it is marketing and risk management that poses the danger of exceeding a moral boundary.

We are living in an age where the online and the offline world’s perimeters are blurring. We see something funny or something bad and we either tell our friends, or tell the world via a post. Or both. We want to take photos a certain way because we have seen something like it online. We share photos (don’t even get me started on the overkill of parents posting umpteen number of baby pictures) and we share memes. We share life quotes, music videos, book recommendations and generally scream our point of view into what is essentially…storage space. And why do we do it? Because it’s fun.

Maybe it is best that, however, that you pick and choose your data settings wisely. Because fun is not worth painting yourself a target for corporate interest.