Is it all a bit Big Brother?

“Always the eyes watching you and the voice enveloping you. Asleep or awake, working or eating, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or in bed — no escape. Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull” ― 1984, by George Orwell In Britain today, around 1.85million Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) cameras watch our every move. That’s roughly one camera for every 34 people. While there are arguments to be made for, and against, surveillance on this scale, Orwell’s dystopian vision continues to appear more prophetic with each passing year. We can be tracked by cameras, by the signals of our smartphones, on our social media accounts, emails and texts, and through our financial transactions – it seems we now leave some kind of digital footprint wherever we go. And now we have telematics insurance, offering cheaper cover in return for installing a small, GPS-enabled device in your vehicle. The box transmits real-time information about where you are and how you’re driving to the insurer, which uses this information to give you (arguably) fairer premiums. At the moment it’s optional, so nobody’s being secretly spied on against their wishes, but pundits predict that new vehicles with factory-fitted telematics, such as the Citroen C1 Connexion, will become more mainstream. Whether you’d rather consign black boxes to Room 101 or you’re ready to learn to love Big Brother, here’s a closer look at telematics insurance, and whether opposition to the technology is all a bit tin-foil hat.

What data are they actually recording?

A telematics black box records things like acceleration, deceleration, corning, location and at what time of the day or night you’re driving, using GPS, accelerometers and other tech. The little black box, which plugs into your diagnostics port, uses the simple distance over time equation to work out your speed, while accelerometers monitor your acceleration and braking. Generally, the amount of data being recorded and transmitted increases in the event of a collision, to give the insurer the best chance of working out what happened. The technology is supposed to reward drivers who drive safely, on safer roads and at safer times of the day, with cheaper premiums. The data sent to the insurer will tell them where you’ve been, when you were there and how carefully you drove there. It’s easy to see why someone concerned with the erosion of privacy and civil liberties via technology might be concerned – but telematics is, at this stage, voluntary. The type of data being collected and how frequently it is transmitted varies from one telematics insurance provider to the next, because there’s no industry standard yet. And we’re not talking about constantly-relayed, real-time data - that would cost the insurers a lot of money, given that they have to pay to the mobile spectrum to transmit data over.

What do they do with the data?

In a nutshell, they interpret the data and decide how safely you drive – before pricing your premiums accordingly. In the event of a collision, they will also use this data to work out what happened, or to apportion blame, if you’re being cynical. This might be concerning to some, as the people interpreting the data and deciding how safely you drive are the same people in business to make money from you. As the data isn’t independently audited or verified by a third party, you could be said to be at the mercy of whatever they decide constitutes a ‘safe driver’. Some pundits have suggested we might see the development of a universally-recognised ‘driver score’ which could work like our credit score. These were among the talking points at this year’s Association of British Insurers’ (ABI) annual conference in March. Telematics data is sent using the same network technology as mobile phones and stored on the insurer’s servers. Theoretically, this data could be intercepted, but it’s at least as secure as the texts and calls from your phone – and contains, potentially, less sensitive information. Then there are some questions over where the data is stored, its security, how long it is stored for and who it belongs to. If the data belongs to the insurer, are they free to sell it on to other companies? If you’re no longer a customer with the insurer, do they keep the data? And could they use it in future if you returned as a non-telematics customer? Then there’s the question for which no precedent has been set: could law enforcement agencies use the data to prove your whereabouts in a case which wasn’t to do with your driving, a collision or road traffic incident? Individual telematics insurance providers are making their own promises about data security and ownership – several say they won’t sell or share your data, but a few say they may use it for research purposes, or to ‘comply with the law’. Make of that what you will.

It’s not all data collection

Telematics technology isn’t just being used to set premiums, as Les Roberts found out when he test drove the Citroen C1 (read more here). The Connexion model comes with telematics tech factory fitted. It also has a built-in sat nav, using the car’s GPS kit, and options for breakdown recovery and emergency assistance. In this case, the GPS tracking could prove crucial in the event of an accident, as emergency services would be able to pinpoint your location. It’d also be helpful in the event of a breakdown, as it’d save you having to describe your location to the breakdown recovery service on the hard shoulder. The tech can also be used to track down stolen vehicles. According to figures from the Co-operative and telematics provider Wunelli, 92% of telematics-enabled vehicles reported as stolen since 2012 have been recovered – with an average recovery time of three hours.

Doublethink

At the moment, taking a view on telematics can make you feel like you’re experiencing Orwell’s concept of doublethink. On the one hand, telematics could mean cheap car insurance and safer driving which would be doubleplus good, but on the other, it could be opening up a new can worms regarding data protection and surveillance. The truth is, it’s probably too soon to tell. According to the ABI, telematics is still very niche – accounting for only 1% of all British car insurance policies. It’s therefore not surprising that a lot of questions remain unanswered. In the meantime, the ABI has put together a telematics committee to look at the issues that come with establishing a common data standard. Telematics is undoubtedly here to stay, and will probably improve as technology moves on, but the industry will have a lot of work to make sure it keeps up.

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