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Illustration by Bruno Moraes

Is Facebook's stance hypocritical?

Facebook has blocked a U.K. car insurance company from using customer’s social media profiles to calculate their insurance premiums.

Admiral Insurance's initiative was aimed at new drivers aged 17 to 21, and requested permission to access a potential customer’s Facebook profile. From there, the company would use a bespoke algorithm to analyze the person’s personality in order to make a judgement about how risky a driver they would be. The system would profile the individual based on how specific and concise their writing style was, what they would ‘like’ and what apps were associated with their profile.

According to the company website, the opt-in scheme aimed to build “a reputational track record in the absence of a driving history or no claims bonus” and incentivized participation by offering up to a 15 percent discount on future insurance premium to those that the algorithm deemed low-risk.

Just two hours ahead of Admiral’s launch of the new system on Wednesday, Facebook stepped in with concerns that the initiative violated the social media network’s privacy policy

The policy, specifically section 3.15, states that companies may not use “data obtained from Facebook to make decisions about eligibility, including whether to approve or reject an application or how much interest to charge on a loan.”

Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group, praised the social media giant’s move: “We need to think about the wider consequences of allowing companies to make decisions that affect us financially or otherwise, based on what we have said on social media.”

“Such intrusive practices could see decisions being made against certain groups based on biases about race, gender, religion or sexuality—or because their posts in some way mark them as unconventional,” Killock continued. “Ultimately, this could change how people use social media, encouraging self-censorship in anticipation of future decisions.”

Still, it turns out that Facebook itself holds a contradictory patent in the U.S that a would allow companies to use it's database when analyzing a user’s friend network in order to, say, assess eligibility for a loan. 

As the the Atlantic reported last year, the patent documentation explicitly outlines credit assessment as a possible use for technological “authorization and authentication based on an individual's social network.” The Facebook patent, in one example, describes an alternate process for calculating a person’s credit score by averaging out their associations in quite some detail:

“FIG. 9 is a flow diagram that illustrates the steps carried out in authenticating B for access to a loan... [T]he lender receives a request for a loan from B. The request includes certain identifying information of B, such as B's e-mail address... in accordance with the methods described in the application, this lender makes a request to a social network database for a graph representation of B's social network and receives the graph representation of B's social network…  If the average credit rating is above a minimum score, B is authenticated and the processing of B's loan application is permitted to proceed. If not, B is not authenticated, and B's loan application is rejected.”

So, while Facebook is blocking companies like Admiral from utilizing these kinds of assessment processes, the various legal and structural elements that would allow Facebook to implement them itself are seemingly in place behind-the-scenes. In the meantime, Facebook continues to revoke the permissions of third-party companies under the guise of protecting user privacy.

As a conversation around Facebook’s intent developed online this afternoon, Killock drew the ire of other activists who accused him of ‘privacy-washing’ for his quick commendation of Facebook:


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