Data Mining Exec Pays For Burgers In Cash To Keep His Insurance Company From Knowing His Bad Diet Habits

from the privacy?-what's-that? dept

The Economist recently had an interesting article on how insurance companies are increasingly using data mining to “analyze risk.” That is, they look through the data which was originally collected for the purpose of better marketing, and use it as a tool to see if you lead an unhealthy life. However, the really interesting point is highlighted by Kashmir Hill, where an exec at a datamining company admits that he’s changed his habits because of this. Not his eating habits, mind you. But how he purchases food:

Insurers’ interest in data mining will only grow, says Kevin Pledge, the boss of Insight Decision Solutions, an underwriting-technology consultancy based near Toronto…. Insurance firms will also analyse grocery purchases for clues about policyholders, he predicts. But that raises some sticky questions about privacy. Mr Pledge himself has begun to forgo his supermarket loyalty-card discount on junk food and pay for his burgers in cash. Promising as data mining is, much will depend on how regulators, and consumers, react.

He also notes that he’s working on a system that will go through your social media profiles to see if you provide any info insurers may want to know about. This, of course, is the natural extension of our data explosion. But, in my experience, all of these companies who collect data seem to do an incredibly bad job at getting it right. And… as long as there’s that “cash hole” for data, it’s hard to see how accurate such information would really be.

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Comments on “Data Mining Exec Pays For Burgers In Cash To Keep His Insurance Company From Knowing His Bad Diet Habits”

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Stephen (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I think the main way I could foresee is that although the record goes away from official sources after the 3 to 5 years there’s no guarantee that a note of your ticket that someone else has made within that period is destroyed at the same time. It needn’t be your insurance company, it just needs to be someone that the insurer brings in to check on you.

drew (profile) says:

But but but...

… won’t someone think of the children?
How long before someone interested group starts to claim that surely we need to lock down the web and stop all the evil and pernicious companies exploiting our children’s data?

Or we could let them grow up in this environment and figure out their own ways to control how much they choose to interact with it and what data they wish to share.

Christine Sandquist (profile) says:

Re: But but but...

This is kind of a fine line. In the case of data mining, it’s not so much people choosing what they’re sharing as it is companies going through and compiling records based on even actions that would casually be considered to be fairly private, like what someone is buying at the grocery store. It seems a little wrong that anyone other than my credit card company or bank should be sharing my every purchase with, say, my insurance company.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:


Unless a data mining firm makes their own record of it in your file. There is no limit to how long they can keep data.

A media story I saw online was about people who were having minor accidents and before they could even get a copy of the report there was a lawyer at the door or on the phone with a copy of the report and offering to help.

This data is being gathered and collected, and there are no limits on what they can get, how long they keep it, or how it is used.

The larger problem is when they attach someone else’s record to yours.
If a credit bureau attaches someone’s information to your account, there is a process (no matter how much of a PITA it is) to have it corrected and they have to fix it.
If a private data gathering firm screws up, you might never know. The data collected is “private” and they have no obligation to make sure it is the least bit accurate. Without people challenging what is in the records companies who use the firms services have no idea if they are getting good data.

I’ve gotten tons of snail mail offering to help me get my free scooter through medicare. Except I’m no where near old enough for medicare, have nothing wrong that requires the use of a scooter, and they just keep sending more.
That’s more annoying than anything, but if that same record was handed to an insurance company it is very possible I would be facing higher rates.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:


but what about the discounts?!

And there are good uses of those cards, when there was the recall of the tainted vegetable protein in the last year or so I got a handy call from the grocer telling me I had purchased something that had been recalled.

But there needs to be a balance, one just needs to balance out the options.

The fact that an exec in that very market is actively trying to avoid being tracked should be a big red flag that things might have gone to far…

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:


And Target is serious about getting your data, did you know if you block the 3 or 4 tracking things they stuff on your computer you can’t use their site?

Keeps presenting a demand that cookies have to be enabled, no wonder last time I needed to buy something I went elsewhere. If you don’t want me to browse your store online to see if you have what I want, WTF would I goto your store?

Anonymous Coward says:

Use Cash

The only reason all these snooping companies get to know your purchases is because you choose to use a credit card. Anonymous cash purchases still work just fine. Choose privacy, if privacy is what you want. If you choose to use a credit card, you are telling them that you do not value your privacy, and inviting them to draw any conclusions they please.

Of course, if they can do face recognition, then all bets are off. Funny how many cameras there are around these days, isn’t it?

ohrn (profile) says:

Individual insurance rates.

I’ve never understood the race to data-mine insurance customers to the bone.

Insurance is supposed to share risk as a collective, but if my rate is exactly tailored to my individual risk, then what purpose does the insurance company serve me? Seems I could just put that money into my own savings account and use it when shit happens.


That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Individual insurance rates.

but insurance companies exist to make money, and if they can eliminate or raise rates on people who aren’t good bets, they can hold onto more money.
They already offer discounts to people who quit smoking, or exercise more etc etc…. this is just the inverse of that…

Its creepy and not right, it brings to mind the insurance company who took a woman to court to stop paying her disability because they found a picture of her on vacation smiling. And that 1 picture convinced them she wasn’t that depressed, so to court they went.

Anonymous Coward says:

That is easy

They are only ACTIVE for a certain number of years (10 in my state). However, I just renewed my drivers license on-line, and looked at my driving record. Guess what I found, records going all the way back to when I received my first drivers license. I am quite certain that will show up on a search by the insurance companies, but even if it doesn’t, they will have digital copies of those records because, guess what insurance companies pull your driving record at every renewal, and keep their own copy.

Once data is ‘out there’ it can never really be clawed back.

It is very scary what data mining can find out about people.

15 years ago, I needed to have my septic tank cleaned. I hoped on-line, did a yellow pages search to find a business, made a call and thought nothing about it. Then I noticed I started getting ads for septic tank services on-line. I wasn’t terribly surprised by that. A couple of days later I started getting flyers in the mail. That was a real eye opener. They have perfected their abilities by now.

I read a few weeks ago about a company (may have been on this site, I don’t recall) that knew a girl was pregnant, something like 2 weeks BEFORE she bought a pregnancy test.

Seems like ‘Minority Report” (the film) may be closer to reality than you know. Be careful what you think, because others probably know (but they don’t need the precogs).

Anonymous Coward says:

All the ironies in this story.

-If a government running a big insurance program covering all their citizens did this kind of spying on their own people there would be cries of Big Brother government telling you what to eat and how to live (remember those cries when congress considered a soda tax in the healthcare bill?).

-The executive at a datamining company even realizes the dangers of people like his company collecting all his personal data and selling it to others. So he’s changed to untraceable means of buying stuff, while continuing to endanger everyone else’s privacy and sell it to insurance companies.

-Because it’s a private insurance company using this data to reject you when you come to buy insurance from them, this makes the data they’re collecting even more dangerous then in the hands of a government trying to reduce it’s expenses in some ways. If every insurance company reads the same data and all reject you from it then you’re screwed, you have no way of knowing how to improve that data about your lifestyle, and they don’t have to tell you why they rejected you. Sure you could switch to only eating salads and health food instead of greasy burgers, but how long would it take for people reading the data mined about you to think you’ve really changed to a healthy lifestyle when you used to eat burgers several times a week? A government forced to cover all it’s citizens however can’t just arbitrary cover healthy citizens bills and not unhealthy citizens, they’d have to do something indirect to effect your behavior to reduce their expenses, like put a 10 cent tax on greasy burgers to make people eat something cheaper and healthier.

FarSide (profile) says:


“A government forced to cover all it’s citizens however can’t just arbitrary cover healthy citizens bills and not unhealthy citizens, they’d have to do something indirect to effect your behavior to reduce their expenses, like put a 10 cent tax on greasy burgers to make people eat something cheaper and healthier.”

Or make large sodas illegal! That’s just crazy! It’s a good thing we can trust that government won’t ever be able to do stuff like that…

Also, you don’t HAVE to buy insurance (yet).

Don’t get me wrong – I think insurance companies are right behind banks when it comes to bad entities. But both of them are far, far behind the govt. because they take the others’ money and look the other way and enable them.

In other words, don’t make a false dichotomy of having to like either the govt or the big insurance companies – I don’t trust any of ’em.

FarSide (profile) says: long as there's that "cash hole"...

That sounds like you are a tax evader to me! Or worse yet, a terrorist!

I have no doubt in my mind that there have been several explorations of this very thing. Whether it will come to pass in the next 20 or 30 years, I am not sure.

From the point of view of the government, they have the right to tax any and all transactions between people. They just don’t have the tech to enforce it.

Once they can get it together, I think there will be a push to cut down on these ‘tax loopholes’, which is their favorite language to get people to support getting taxed more.

Anonymous Coward says:


Those companies doing it well are the exception (for now). Speaking from an insurance company that still does a terrible job collecting complete and meaning full data, I have to say that the lack of quality and usefulness of the information has not deterred management’s desire for more. They are all convinced that there is some combination of measurable (or worse, unmeasurable) factors that will consistently turn every last policyholder into a profit center from which rivers of gold will flow. I have found that this unsupported belief is immune to all reasoned arguments.

Brent (profile) says:

I love this site but the more articles I read here the more disgusted I am over corporations and government corruption. The way the executive in the article seems to lackadaisically discuss extreme violation of individual privacy is abhorrent. I’ve always hate the ‘legitimate scam’ industry that is the insurance business and this certainly didn’t help. Now it seems data miners will cause as much restriction on the internet as the government is trying to do behind our backs anyways.

Anonymous Coward says:

That is easy

Car insurance isn’t really a problem since there is healthy competition in that industry. If one company wants to screw you over a ticket 10 years old, another would be happy to give you a lower rate to get your business.

Health insurance is a different ball game since most people have little affordable choice beyond their employer’s provided coverage. Since many companies policy don’t leave room to change individuals more, the bill goes up for everyone which means that eating a hamburger could lead to you losing your job if it means a bigger bill for the employer.

I call BS on the pregnancy deal. They may have made a good guess based on her age for some targeted ads. Best they could do potentially would be if she talked about having un protected sex on facebook and they were able to time that with her ovulation based on Kroger plus data for tampon purchases.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: That is easy

Umm the details of the pregnancy thing was discussed here.
They dug in the data and figured out certain purchases lead to clues, then they discovered if you send out a packet of for your new baby coupons the people get creeped out, so they print special packs of coupons with more baby ads that look like the normal ones.

Anonymous Coward says:

There is a consumer loyalty card hole as well

Yes, if you have ever used a check or credit/debit card with the loyalty card it has been attached to your identity.

Get a new loyalty card every time you shop!

“I have a Kroger grocery store card that I never registered. I get the discounts for the card but they don’t have any record of who is using the card. Though I guess the could figure it out by the credit card used to pay and maybe they are?”

Jesse (profile) says:

Use Cash

I was thinking about this. How do you make purchases untraceable?

The reason is I wanted to get VPN via bitcoins. But then I needed to get bitcoins. So I was going to pay cash to get a chargeable credit card, but everyone uses security cameras.

An okay solution. If you just walk in with a mask, people get weird. Instead, ride a motorcycle. Park a ways away, so as not to get your license plate on parking lot cameras. Keep the helmet on, tinted visor. I used to do this all the time when I rode, out of convenience; it can be a hassle to take off the gloves and mask just for a quick purchase.

Alternatively, you could just buy yourself a burqa for an anonymous day of cross dressing (for the men anyways).

Lastly, you could do it on silk road. Also, use a string of bitcoin tumblers for extra security.

I don’t really need this level of security, but it is more of a thought challenge as a proof of concept.

ltlw0lf (profile) says:


And there are good uses of those cards, when there was the recall of the tainted vegetable protein in the last year or so I got a handy call from the grocer telling me I had purchased something that had been recalled.

Two companies have given me discount cards without requiring information from me. So they are tracking a phantom. Of course, if they have a need to contact me, they won’t be able to. They may be able to use inference or surveillance to discover who I am, but I really haven’t used them enough to be worth the trouble.

However, I do have discount cards that I do have associated with my phone number (alone) or an email address (alone) which is quite useful for the reasons you mention, without providing additional information.

Anonymous Coward says:

Well you could just lie about your name for the card. My Walgreens and Kroger card both say I’m Mike Hunt rofl. “I know I was high and it just happened.”

It’s like Hucks always asking for my birthday when I buy smokes.
Date of birth sir? 5/5/1936 and they enter it without blinking. Keep in mind I’m not even 30 rofl..

Chosen Reject (profile) says:


I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure if you use those cards and then use a credit card on the same purchase, they’ll associate the two and know who you are. I always give bogus data when getting those cards, but somehow the grocery store has been sending me special coupons. Not addressed to “Current resident” but addressed specifically to me.

ltlw0lf (profile) says:


I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure if you use those cards and then use a credit card on the same purchase,

I believe you are right. However, I’ve only used cash with one of the cards and have had no problems. The other card I have used with my credit cards, and checked at one point, using their computer, to see what information they had on the card, and it didn’t show any data. Now whether they still associated it with my credit card in a super sekrit database somewhere, I have no idea. I’ve never seen any email (associated with my credit card) or phone traffic as a result of the card itself.

241 (profile) says:

How would Insurance Companies even know?

A huge question (to me) not addressed in this article:

If this person buys junk food with his credit card, perhaps his bank could know and the retailer could know, but how would the insurance company know?

Unless the insurance company is part of the same corporation as the bank or junk food retailer — which would be strange, right?

Chilly8 says:

One way to solve this is to use a card where records are not kept as long. Most banks keep records for 6 years, PayPal only keeps records for 2 years. After reading this article, I have started making purchases that might raise the eyebrows of insurers, such as eating at Denny’s, whose fare is not exactly considered health food, using my PayPal card, where the records will only be there for 2 years.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re:

They might only be in the PayPal data base for 2 years, but who else has access to that data? Is Denny’s data mining and keeping track of you.

This is the problem is there is so much data, so many ways to get it, and no clear rules about all the details.

I had my high school sell out decades of graduates to a company who wanted to sell us a directory of everyone for like 50 or 60 years… they paid the school for access to the records and gave them a cut of every sale, in return they were handed the full transcripts of every class, every teacher, every grade… of course they don’t share information but funny I got a brand new wave of targeted mail to my full name that I never use…

Scout Mac says:

Individual insurance rates.

I realize this is a strange way to reach out but I work for NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. I saw post you put up on brokers and medical data. We are doing a story on data brokers who mine people?s medical information and are looking for people who may have had this happen to them or have some experience with it to give us a TV interview.
The interview would likely happen sometime in the next two weeks and depending on your location we can send a camera crew to you or even do an interview over Skype.

If this is something you?d be interested in please get in touch, my email is

Feel free to verify my identity via Google this is not a trick!

Thank you very much,

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