Insurance hikes, privacy risks, for social media users – by “Jacob A”

The Huffington Post recently reported on an prediction made by the website confused.com, which helps insurance payers navigate and compare different rates, about a probable rise in insurance premiums for social media users. Why would social media users see home insurance hikes? Because the status-updates and other information they furnish on the social media services they use, such as Twitter or Foursquare, alert burglars as to when they’re home, and when they’re not.

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Tweeting something as benign as “great tilapia tacos @ Drew’s Taco Shack” is potentially unsafe as it alerts burglars to the fact that whoever is currently eating a taco with Drew is also not home. A new wesbite, pleaserobme.com, hopes to increase awareness about the dangers of publicly providing too much information, so it collects tweets and Facebook status updates and displays them to the world for anyone to see.

Pleaserobme.com means to make people realize the dangers of constantly updating and disseminating their location at all times, but it does so by letting robbers know when you’re not home, which is, although an admittedly pretty funny way of getting thoughtless social media users to think twice before tweeting “I’m I’m at Cali Yogurt,” also a lawsuit waiting to happen.

That said, it really is easy enough to find out where a sizeable chunk of the population lives by using Google’s phone number look up on a number or address. Consider also the enormous amounts of information provided by Google Earth or Streetview, and the extent to which digital technologies empower house robbers (or identity-thieves or other poorly intentioned individuals) becomes abundantly clear.

But even admitting that “criminals are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their information gathering… to plan their burglaries with military precision,” as Darren Black, the head of home insurance at confused.com, has pointed out – does this justify insurance hikes? What standards of burglar-sensitive stupidity (e.g. “Oh no! In Mexico for three days & think I forgot to turn the heat off at home!”) will insurance providers use? How does one gauge burglary (or other) risks from a tweet or Facebook status update?  And isn’t the very purpose and function of social media to disseminate opinions, constantly updated personal information, microstatements about daily life and wherabouts? Insurance hikes might make sense if there is an actual increase in risk because of social media use, but they also go against the nature of these services. The Huffington Post article refers to a news clipping from 1983 warning telephone users about the dangers of voicemail. “If you have an answering machine that tells callers you are not at home it could alert potential burglars, advises Family Circle magazine.”

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Isn’t the fear over the disclosure of too much information via Twitter et. al. unsubstantiated, given the fact that a great portion of tweets are sent via mobile (and hence out of the home) anyway? Wouldn’t home insurance hikes for social media users be just as silly as if they were applied to phone-owners who didn’t change their voicemail?

But the kinds of information we propagate online through 4square and Facebook and Twitter also point to the kind of information ecology we would like to live in. Sure, it’s easy enough to make your entire Facebook page private – but was privacy ever the point of social media? Is privacy, as Mark Zuckerberg (in)famously recently stated, “no longer a social norm.”

But, then, where does one draw the line between stupidity and paranoia? There are undeniable dangers to giving away too much of our privacy, but what might those be? Is it more reasonable to be worried about burglars robbing your home, or about the larger privacy or security implications of geolocative (social) media? Shouldn’t we be more concerned about national security compromises that arise when the heads of national intelligence disclose too much information online? For the average person, disclosing too much information may not be a security risk, but it certainly remains a privacy risk. Forget robbers – what about data trawllers, or hostile intelligence networks, or government agencies, or corporate interests, who amass our geolocative (and all our other) social media information?

By default, Facebook makes you publically searchable by everyone, and publically visible by everyone in your networks. Default settings go more often unchanged then not. Privacy is not a default setting. The question is whether it still remains a social standard.

Social media is still a new technology. It will have direct implications on things such as hikes in home insurance premiums, as well as much larger cultural consequences. Is a social media universe where it is considered unsafe to post birthdates, pets names, phone numbers, photos a friendly one? A social one? We may have to value privacy and friendliness against each other.

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