It is the global business which has just been told by European regulators it can’t absorb personal information from its most recently-acquired division. It has form for arbitrarily changing how it makes use of the personal information it is given, such as inserting your friend’s photo into an ad in your feed without them knowing. Yet it has just blocked a new insurance scheme that wanted to set premiums based on customers’ posts on the social network. Huh?
In case you missed it, firstcarquote was supposed to be a new insurance proposition for young drivers. Launched by Admiral on the morning of 2nd November, it asked users to give permission for the insurer to look at their posts and likes, then plug that information into a new suite of risk assessment algorithms. The value exchange was set to be discounts of between 5 and 15%, up to a maximum of £350, with a promise that premiums would only be adjusted downwards based on social data, never upwards. Some heavyweight data science had gone into building the models behind the scenes ahead of the PR launch.
Less than 24 hours later, however, Facebook shut the door on Admiral’s telescope. Although it had no problem with allowing social log-in to the insurance app, the planned risk modelling apparently violated guidelines on information from the network being used “to make decisions about eligibility,” according to Facebook.
That could be the first time it has gone onto the front foot over privacy, rather than having to fight off everybody from federal investigators in the US to European Commissioners over its own data uses. So is this a turning point in Facebook’s own value exchange with users?
Probably not. A much stronger reason for the decision is the need to protect its own advertising model. Using the data yielded by its 1.4 billion users to sell targeted ads is how it makes money, so allowing a third party to get a free ride was never very likely. Even if Facebook’s users were to have given Admiral permission, Facebook itself said no.
While that is no big surprise, Admiral’s failure to lock down a formal API agreement with Facebook is. As any business which is hoping to draw on social data knows, establishing a reliable connection to the source is vital, but often either too expensive or too vulnerable to changes in the SLA.
The intention behind firstcarquote was only what is being talked about at every big data analytics event you care to attend. Often, those discussions give the impression that social data is free and easy to get hold of. Admiral’s experience is a good reminder that big data is not a common resource, but rather a closely-guarded asset in the hands of a very small number of internet companies. Whether they respect the privacy of their own users or not, they certainly intend to keep the data they hold private.