3 On Your Side Investigates: Costly Habits

Many of us document our lives on Facebook, through pictures, stories and locators. But could those posts tell a story about US to big business?

3 On Your Side Investigates: Costly Habits

JACKSON, MS (WLBT) - Cassandra Franks of Magee loves Facebook and uses it to connect with friends and her community. Franks is careful to stay away from games and quizzes that pop up. She knows the quizzes can be entry points for others to gather information on her.

“Some people don’t pay attention. I do,” Franks tells us.

But what Franks didn’t know is what we learned through Risk Management Expert Seth Denson.

When you post a picture, a locator, or any information on Facebook, it then belongs to Facebook. The platform can use it in any way it sees fit, which could mean selling access to your information to third party companies.

A new trend, Denson tells us, involves healthcare insurers buying that access, and using it in a way that will guide their health insurance rates.

“The more I understand, if I’m an underwriter, what you might cost me, the more I know how much over time I need to collect from you to make sure I don’t spend too much on you,” Denson tells us. “They’re taking that data, they’re aggregating it amongst the masses to understand that, in this community we have a pattern of people making this amount of money spending a lot of time at Sonic getting that super double cheeseburger.”

Let’s apply that hypothetical to Mississippi.

Social media posts over time might reveal that people in one section of Hinds County exercise a lot, but other posts might suggest people in a different section of Hinds County would rather sit and eat potato chips. Insurers can then use that data to hit you in the wallet.

“I’ve heard of health companies doing that. You’re leaking out all of this information without your knowledge,” says Dr. Natarajan Meghanathan, a professor who studies complex network analysis at Jackson State University. He says the practice of data mining has been around for decades, but now algorhythms can be run on social media platforms.

“You could use that public data, and try to extract something that is more private for some people,” he adds. “If you’re using public information, it’s legal.”

We reached out to some health insurers in Mississippi for comment. We have not yet heard back from Aetna or Humana.

Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Mississippi, the state’s largest health insurance provider, offered this statement:

“In today’s business environment, the use of data is not unique to the healthcare or insurance industries; however, Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Mississippi does not use the type of publicly available information described in your story. Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Mississippi recognizes the significant value that data can bring to our members and Network Providers through better understanding of health and health risks. Some of the most important information a person and their doctor can know are individual measurements for blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol. That’s why we use unique, claims-based data to benefit our members by generating deeper insights that help doctors provide higher-quality care at lower costs. Better insights result in better healthcare and lower healthcare costs for people across our state.”

Denson says data mining could mean good things for your wallet, just as well as bad, but consumers just need to be aware.

“Just do your research. Recognize where that information’s going. Ask questions,” he says.

He also suggests we scrutinize things that are free, including no-cost health care screenings or checking accounts.

“I don’t want to say that all hospitals and independent companies that are hosting these health fairs, that are wanting to do good things for the community, also have maybe ill intent behind it," said Denson. "But what I would encourage the public to do is to recognize that if it’s free it oftentimes is costing you something.”

Denson adds, “Some banks (not all) share your data with outside marketers. They, in effect, sell this data to collection firms who want to ultimately sell that information to organizations that want to sell (to you). Banks will internally use your information too, in order to sell you more of their goods and services (insurance, mortgages, etc.), but the biggest issue is (the banks) selling that data to outside firms.”

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