There is outrage today over reports that Verizon, under orders from the National Security Agency, is apparently listening in to its customers phone calls. Meanwhile, Flo, the semi-endearing but mostly annoying insurance lady who flacks for Progressive Insurance is presiding over a very interesting experiment. Not sure whether to call it a social experiment, a marketing gimmick, or just plain scary. Granted it is voluntary – at least so far – but Progressive is wiretapping our cars.
Progressive’s Snapshot Program is billed as “a unique insurance program,” one that gives a driver a personalized rate based on that driver’s driving. And how can they do that? Because once that driver signs up for the program Progressive gets to watch every move they make.
OK, not every move, and again I add “so far.” Flo won’t see you light up a bong or text while driving, nor will she know if you drive your car to a Socialist Party meeting or shop at WalMart. What she will know is when you drive, how much you drive, and if you are prone to stopping suddenly. It is technically possible she will also know the weight of your accelerator foot, whether you use your turn signals, or driver although Progressive may not, as they say, be recording such small and large driving infractions.
Here is how Snapshot works. An existing or potential Progressive customer is given a small electronic device – it look a lot like a Blue Tooth thing-a-ma-jiggy (technical term) which plugs into the cars diagnostic port. (Oh, and by the way it is free.) Customers have an option of a one-month trial after which they are told their personalized rate or they can opt directly into the five month monitoring required to get and keep that rate. (Did we mention Snapshot is free?)
In addition to the Flo commercials the program is being sold by an ad campaign that could have been developed by Ted Cruz. It is all about your victim-hood (and of course the fact it is free). Your rates are high, the television and internet ads tell us, because of “Rate Suckers,” a category that so far includes the the Constant Driver, the Hard Braker, and the Late Night Driver. These societal scourges are portrayed as individuals spayed across a car’s windshield, mouths affixed to the glass, looking very much like well-dressed perch.
On the website a customer is invited to make sure he himself is not a Rate Sucker by taking what is really a rather clever test with questions like:
Do you completely ignore Yield signs because, like a Viking warrior, you yield to no one?
Do you ever try driving with your left foot, just for the fun of it?
Do you drive on the wrong side of the world because the sun never sets on the British Empire?
Do you always brake nonchalantly even when the situation calls for chalant braking?
Of course you don’t. Then why let those who do believe/behave in this manner raise YOUR rates. You are better than this, but because they are not, You are their victim. (Oh, and by the way, it is free).
This may all be completely innocent on the part of Progressive but here is my alternative (and conspiratorial) view. First of all, I picture a whole bunch of Madison Avenue types with presentation packages and white boards holding forth in Progressive’s executive conference room. They are slapping their thighs and saying “Can you believe this – two weeks of our ads and they are pounding on your agents’ doors. They are begging you to bug their cars.”
Second, I see executives at State Farm, Travelers, and Safeco watching carefully and taking notes. If Progressive’s program gets traction you can almost certainly expect similar programs from other major insurers within the year.
Next I expect such a tiny little Blue Tooth-like device will soon become mandatory for anyone who wants auto insurance. After all, this is an industry that in some states requires a credit check for anyone who merely wants to buy their product. And if insurance companies want to do it, who is going to stop them? Never doubt the desire of auto insurers to know everything that happens to the cars they are insuring or their predilection toward avoiding any liability for claims.
And after that? Video cameras to verify that homeowner wind damage claims were really caused by wind? GPS recorders to track gym attendance for Blue Cross? Permanent Holter Monitors for everyone with life insurance?
There were a lot of people warning about the slippery slope we were placed on by the Patriot Act and the news about Verizon indicates it has taken us only a dozen years to slide the length of it. Now are we are going to cheerfully invite corporate America – those sectors that are not already monitoring our internet usage and shopping habits – to monitor how and when we use our cars.
I am probably in the minority but I think any reasons the government may have for wanting my personal information will, in the long run, be far more benign than the designs corporate America has on it.