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“Give me all the Cheez Whiz. #lunchgoals #kingofsteak”
Right now, this little dietary indiscretion would simply go down in the annals of Instagram and late-night indigestion. But health insurance companies may know about your cheat days and a whole lot more, and they will point to those empty, saturated fat-loaded calories from your cheesesteak breakdown when they jack up your rates.
Without much oversight, the health insurance industry is partnering with data brokers to gobble up as much information about your habits and purchases as possible, including what you eat, buy and watch on Netflix, ProPublica’s Marshall Allen reports. The insurers want to know if you have good credit and what you post on Insta. All that data goes into a computer, which analyses it against patterns that could lead to health risks and higher bills.
“Are you a woman who’s purchased plus-size clothing? You’re considered at risk of depression. Mental health care can be expensive,” Allen offers as an example.
All of the information gathered is public, and insurers say it is used to help identify risk factors and connect customers to the services they need. The federal Health Information Portability and Accountability Act, which keeps the details of your healthcare private, only covers medical information.
“We have a health privacy machine that’s in crisis,” said Frank Pasquale, a professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law who specializes in issues related to machine learning and algorithms. “We have a law that only covers one source of health information. They are rapidly developing another source.”
Some data collectors are compiling “health scores” on individuals, and selling the info to insurers. But, unlike credit scores, the public has no legal right to review and verify their health score is based on correct information. Most of these algorithms are being designed by private companies with no outside scrutiny.
United States patient advocates say it’s time for an open debate on what information should and should not be allowed in calculating coverage costs. Europe has already confronted the issue, passing a strict law that was initiated in May banning trading in personal data.