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Father of the Web warns insurers against data profligacy

Sir Tim Berners-Lee has urged insurers to avoid the temptation of using increasing amounts of publicly available data about consumers on the web to price their products.

The inventor of the World Wide Web made a plea to the industry at the British Insurance Brokers’s Association conference in Manchester yesterday, requesting that information we share about ourselves on line – particularly by young people through social networks – should not be gathered for the purposes of pricing risk.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee explained that what we say and share about ourselves on line should not be fair game for the insurance industry

By Ralph Savage

Sir Tim Berners-Lee has urged insurers to avoid the temptation of using increasing amounts of publicly available data about consumers on the web to price their products or decide whether claims are valid.

The inventor of the World Wide Web made a plea to the industry at the British Insurance Brokers’s Association conference in Manchester yesterday, requesting that information we share about ourselves on line – particularly by young people through social networks – should not be gathered for the purposes of pricing risk or paying claims.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee explained that what we say and share about ourselves on line should not be fair game for the insurance industry

Sir Tim, who sits on the Transparency Board of Open Government at data.gov.uk is a staunch advocate of opening up publicly owned data, but he said the private sector has a major responsibility in how it uses the information available.  “Insurance companies should come up with guidelines to reassure people about what information will be used,” he said “For example the industry could say ‘We will not use the information you share on social networks from when you are under 18. We would like this to be the case as childhood should be protected.”

The mechanics of how personal data can and should be used is a particular concern for Sir Tim and the Open Government organisation. For example he pointed out how even anonymised personal data such as medical records can, with the correct filtering be used to identify individuals: “Anonymised personal data might need licensing,” he said. “Rules on how terms can be violated need to be clear. Correlation of information that identifies individuals needs to be risk managed.”

At the heart of Sir Tim’s message was ‘Data Provenance’. He emphasised that users of data like insurance companies had an obligation to acknowledge where the information they are planning to use is coming from and how the data should be used when they get it. “Companies that deal with a lot of data need to track where the data came from; the appropriate use and destiny of that data is important.”

About Ralph Savage (139 Articles)
Insurance and legal journalist Ralph Savage has written extensively for the financial and professional services sectors, most notably as News Editor of Post Magazine. He ghost writes regularly on behalf of FTSE 250 CEOs, leading counsel and senior professionals including solicitors, insurers, accountants and brokers.

3 Comments on Father of the Web warns insurers against data profligacy

  1. I saw your comment (or someone’s comment with a link to this post) in a recent ‘The Economist’ article. Sir T.B.L.’s phrase is very apt! Seems to me that Insurers would be wise to self-regulate, now, starting with proper risk policies and data governance.

    Data profligacy is likely to cause many exposures. For example, poorly vetted (data harvesting) software applications may lead to mistakes that are more costly than the issues they were originally intended to correct.

    • Ralph Savage // 17 June 2012 at 8:04 am // Reply

      Yes that was my comment… It seems obvious that the temptation is there so for insurers licking their lips at the prospect of having access to all this data; From a UK perspective, I think both TBL’s government advisory group and The Information Commissioner’s office should pay attention. It wouldn’t be the first time insurers have had to be reined in (there is a moratorium on genetic testing/HIV etc right now and it’s obvious why insurers would dearly love to have access to information like that).

  2. Ralph Savage // 17 June 2012 at 9:40 am // Reply

    If you are interested in the Economist article on this topic – you can find it here: http://www.economist.com/node/21556263

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