Two weeks ago, as I was training for the Milano Relay Marathon, I received an unexpected email. It was from insurance company Europ Assistance, which offered all athletes discounts on its health insurance products. It came as a surprise, because I am careful to deny my consent to my data being used for marketing. I called the trainer of our group, who had taken care of entering us into the race, and he assured me he is very careful about that too. Maybe, he said, Europ Assistance got through the privacy barriers because it actually delivers a service to athletes: health insurance for the duration of the race. I got to the finishing line and there they were, measuring “health parameters” and, I am sure, promoting their products.
The rationale of an aggressive marketing towards long distance runners are clear. Insuring anyone who runs a marathon is profitable, because she is likely to be quite healthy and will be paying up for years before requiring that the insurer pays for treatment. I wonder if insurance companies are tempted by the reciprocal strategy, that of NOT insuring people who do not show up in the myriad databases associated with a healthy lifestyle (members of sport clubs, gym aficionados etc.). This kind of behavior is advantageous for its perpetrator (in this case insurance companies), but socially harmful (risk is not spread, and people who need care most can’t get it). Should this happen, private insurance would prove an inadequate solution to the health care of the citizenry, and policy makers should build and protect national health services.
Incidentally, the list of participants to the Milano Relay Marathon is far from the the most potentially momentous database from the point of view of the companies. Genomic startup 23andme sequences your DNA based on a sample received by mail, and computes your “risk factors” for 100 diseases — for $99. In the discussion on the social consequences of a pervasive Internet I see many people trying to scare their fellow citizens with stuff that most experts consider unfounded: we will unlearn to read any text longer than a tweet, we will shut ourselves in our homes to chat with strangers online instead of living the rich social life of our elders, we will bump into paedophiles and terrorists in every other social networking website. Internet skeptics are good at whistle blowing; they could be very useful to society by blowing the whistle for the real risks, like those associated with the inevitable loss of privacy on health data. And we that care about open data (and love data about our own running) had better meditate on whether transparency can become too much of a good thing.
Here is a more positive earlier post on running as mass generation and consumption of data)