Redlining for the 21st Century

Companies can now use data to constrict which options they offer to certain consumers—and at what prices.

Using personal information gathered about you on the Internet to provide you with better choice is very different from using the same information to control your behavior. The former is a service to the consumer. The latter is exploitation. I call the use of big data to exploit consumers “personal redlining.”

The term “redlining,” which first emerged in the 1950s, referred to the practice of denying service or charging more for products to particular groups based on race, sex, or where they lived. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 made redlining based on race, religion, sex, and the like illegal in mortgage lending.

Personal redlining is not about using big data in clever ways to influence choice as has been discussed in a recent Atlantic article by Rebecca J. Rosen. It is about using big data to dictate choice. When companies engage in personal redlining they use big data to learn everything possible about you as an individual and then decide what information, products, and services you should have—and at what price. It is about limiting options and pressuring customers to select one of those options.

If you are provided with too much information, it becomes impossible to find the information you want. Publications such as The Atlantic filter the information they publish to provide their large reader population with the articles they believe will interest them. (It’s called “editing.”) Personal redlining using big data can also be used to provide you with relevant choices and make it easier for you to find what you want.

Businesses would like customers to believe that they use big data only to add value to the consumer experience. But the behavior of many businesses demonstrates a deep interest in customer control.

Here are some of the techniques businesses will have at their disposal. When a consumer applies for automobile or homeowner insurance or a credit card, companies will be able to make a pretty good guess as to the type of risk pool they should assign the consumer to. The higher-risk consumers will never be informed about or offered the best deals. Their choices will be limited.

State Farm is currently offering a discount to customers through a program called Drive Safe & Save. The insurer offers discounts to customers who use services such as Ford’s Sync or General Motors’ OnStar, which, among other things, read your odometer remotely so that customers no longer have to fuss with tracking how many miles they drive to earn insurer discounts. How convenient!

State Farm makes it seem that it’s only your mileage that matters but imagine the potential for the company once it has remote access to your car. It will know how fast you drive on the freeway even if you don't get a ticket. It will know when and where you drive. What if you drive on routes where there are frequent accidents? Or what if you park your car in high-crime areas?

By personal redlining, State Farm will have the ability to offer you your own personalized insurance rate.

Health insurers, now that health care reform is in effect, cannot refuse you based on prior condition. But they can use other creative techniques. If a company can make a pretty good guess that you are a high-risk customer, it can give you a lousy Internet experience. It can deluge you with questions and long, hard-to-navigate forms, and randomly drop Internet connections and slow the page response. The goal will be to drive you to another company. As journalist Phil Mattera recently pointed out, “These companies have always found ways to increase profits at the expense of coverage, and they always will.”

By analyzing credit-card transactions, credit-card companies can discover customers who frequently return merchandise for credit. Internet retailers could discourage those customers by increasing the charges for shipping.

With access to enough data, airlines can make a pretty good guess as to whether a customer is morbidly obese. They could decide to charge more for a seat, or indicate that nearly full flights have no space.

Of course, companies can also choose to do none of the above. I’m sure that many will instead use the Internet to provide consumers with better choices; they will use big data because they believe the best way to create a profitable business is to provide customers with the best possible service. But others will not. They will use big data to manage information flow, charge customers they decide are less desirable higher prices and make doing business with them less, not more, convenient. They will be the pioneers of personal redlining.