What can we do to avoid the many ways – obvious and not so obvious – that we can be tracked in a wired world? There are still ways to avoid it, but they can be awkward and expensive. In the future, will digital privacy become a costly privilege for the eccentric?
It started with the dry language of a European human rights ruling about auto insurance, but quickly birthed a chirpy website, heavy on exclamation points, pink graphics, and stock art involving bubbles.
In 2011, two Belgian men won a case in which they argued that being charged higher rates than women for car insurance violated human rights law.
That was great for them, but meant that young women in 28 European countries, from Ireland to Bulgaria, would have to be charged a generic rate for young adults that ignored the fact that young men have more accidents.
But for young British women shocked by their suddenly higher car insurance bills – some quotes rose overnight by over £500 (C$1,007) – drivelikeagirl.com offered a solution: if they agreed to electronic monitoring of their driving habits, they could be judged as individuals and not as members of a demographic. In most cases, their rates would fall again.
“We use the latest telematics technology to give girls the fair price they deserve, not because they are female, but because they are safer drivers,” the site promises. “And with telematics, they can prove it.”
(“We will fit a black box to your car. This allows us to find out if you ‘drive like a girl.'”)
Of course, the box will pay attention: that’s its job.
READ MORE: Our digital privacy coverage
It knows if you’re driving between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m. It knows where your car is. And it knows if you’ve been driving for more than two and a half hours without a break, or whether the break you did take lasted less than 20 minutes.
All of that information gets filed away.
(And, in case it came up, this approach doesn’t violate the EU ruling: “You can still ‘drive like a girl’ if you’re male.”)
If all that sounds too intrusive, that’s fine – young women in Britain are still free to pay hundreds of pounds extra a year on car insurance on principle, if that seems important to them. Over time, their premiums will slowly fall, as male drivers their own age get older and become less of a danger to themselves and others.
If that doesn’t seem appealing, the box is waiting.
Drive like a girl did not respond to a request for comment.
Opting out of any form of surveillance is “increasingly difficult,” says former Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian.
“Part of that is that there are sensors that collect data about us – smart phones, for example. Unless you set off the geolocation feature, your geolocation app, they can track your moments. I tell everyone: turn your location off. If you need to turn it on to get directions, turn it on then turn it off.”
The authors of a 2014 report from Deloitte were confident that the car insurance industry would split between monitored and unmonitored drivers “… with those who choose to be monitored representing a separate class of drivers who are underwritten in a different way … In the end, serving the ‘naysayers’ may become a specialty market niche for some carriers.”
“Eventually, non- (usage-based insurance) carriers could end up being niche players catering to consumers who simply don’t want insurers in their proverbial back seats, or who feel their driving behavior will not warrant discounts.”
In other words: monitoring may never be mandatory, exactly, but rejecting it could become an expensive privilege.
READ MORE: Our digital privacy coverage
For the privacy-minded, is public transit a solution?
Transit authorities across Canada are moving toward an electronic pass system which, to some degree, tracks where and when the pass was used, and hence the movements of the person who is using it.
Translink, greater Vancouver’s transit system, recently got rid of all payment options other than a Compass card, which records when and where it was used, or cash.
Other than buying single-use tickets with cash, that’s one way to use the system tracelessly. But it gets expensive.
Assuming a person who travels from the suburbs and uses the system 12 times a week, the cash premium would come out to about $500 a year.
The most convenient way to use the Compass card system – registering a card in case it’s lost, and topping it up with a credit card where needed – is also the most intrusive, since it clearly connects all details of your travel history to your identity.
“There is no getting around the fact that it’s a tracking system,” Micheal Vonn of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association recently told Global News’s Yuliya Talmazan.
Many apps and digital devices offer convenience, but also a privacy intrusion. The Compass card is an example, Cavoukian explains.
“It’s very cool – you don’t have to have tickets every time, and it facilitates transit, and you don’t have to think about it,” she says. “What you have to ask when you buy it is: ‘OK, this is going to help me move from Point A to Point B, it’s a great service – is anything else happening? Is any information being collected?’
“The concern is that people are buying this thing, and they pay for it and get the card so that they can use it for their transit purposes. There isn’t an understanding that it can also track your movements. Why should it be able to do that?
At the very least, you should be able to opt out of it doing that. ”
Cavoukian talks about an ideal of “privacy by default” – “that you will have privacy automatically built into these devices and services offered.”
“If you want your privacy protected, and privacy is built in automatically, it will not track you automatically. It will protect your privacy automatically,” she explains.
What our devices often give us, though, along with whatever convenience they offer, is exposure by default.
What are left are trust relationships with organizations – Google, Translink, car insurance companies – that store very complex records of the comings and goings of our lives.
We aren’t usually forced into these relationships so much as firmly nudged – by the carrot of a useful service, or the stick of budget pressures.
But perceptibly, there is more and more friction against things that we might want to do to make sure we move untracked through the world, something that until recently was very easy.