Why insurers need to build transparency about data usage

‘If technology is changing the balance of power in an economy, there will always be consequences for the winners as well as the losers’


BY Sian Fisher, chief executive, Chartered Insurance Institute

Recently we have seen a watershed in the march of new technology, if only in terms of the way we all conduct our day-to-day business.

From trying to mute and unmute on virtual calls, to trying to sign off on important new opportunities, no one will forget the phrase “next slide please” any time soon. 

We have even seen two of the tech giants, Google and Facebook, squaring up to one another as forceful powerhouses of the modern digital world, with the recent new field of battle becoming the hearts and minds of Australians in relation to newsfeeds and who has ownership and ultimate control.

The stand-off between Australia, on the one hand, and Google and Facebook, on the other, was inconclusive. It is clear both sides would have lost heavily from a prolonged confrontation and that neither was in a position to deliver a knock-out punch.

What has come out of this quarrel, however, is the simple truth that behind the electronic networks powering technological progress lies a much more complex network of trust.

Technology needs the co-operation of many different players in society, not only through legal obligations, such as the General Data Protection Regulation, but also from the “court of public opinion”.

This network of trust needs as much investment and maintenance as any electronic network.

Take, for example, something as simple as the transmission of medical records from doctors to insurance companies, something that is essential for the life insurance and critical illness markets.

The current, heavily paper-based system is slow, inefficient and prone to mistakes that can compromise both consumers’ privacy and their ability to obtain the right kind of cover. It wastes the time of GPs as well as insurers and financial advisers. 

But the range of stakeholders needed to make data sharing a reality is formidable, including thousands of GP practices, patient advocates such as the National Data Guardian, data regulators, financial services regulators, underwriters, financial advisers and, of course, the public itself.

The methods of building trust needed to bring stakeholders together are being developed, but they have not yet reached full maturity. One is real transparency, which means being peer reviewed through a rigorous governance process, not just setting out pages and pages of terms and conditions that everyone knows will never get read. 

For insurers, this means building transparency around how they use data into their business model, product development and communications, and not seeing it simply as a compliance exercise.

Another is understanding the effect technological change has on society and, as professionals, engaging in debate about how to mitigate the negative impact of technology. 

Facebook and Google may feel they should not be responsible for subsidising news networks whose traditional channels are less attractive to advertisers than social media or search engines. However, if technology is changing the balance of power in an economy, there will always be consequences for the winners as well as the losers.

This means insurers have to understand the impact on those who may not gain from technological change, such as high-risk groups, who may find themselves excluded from insurance as risk evaluation becomes more sophisticated, and people who are less able to move from face-to-face to virtual channels.

If companies do not manage their trust networks as carefully as they manage their tech, they will find there are plenty of governments, regulators and non-governmental organisations that are willing to do it for them.

Even more seriously, without investment in our society’s network of trust, the potential of technology to improve the lives of consumers will never be met.