Is 'spying' on applicants unethical, or simply sensible?

Screening applicants is part of an underwriter's job, but just how far can you go before it steps into creepyville? Gathering intel on clients using the internet is now so easy that it isn't even classified as spying - it's simply being sensible. People parade their lives for all to see, so underwriters should really take advantage of this free-for-all. Shouldn't they? 

Where the edges lie

There needs to be some lines drawn in the sand here, for ethical reasons, and to hold on to our dignity as a species. While it's reasonably common for people to lie on forms, either by omission or just good old exaggeration, it isn't the responsibility of an insurer to prove or disprove these statements per se. It's impractical at best, impossible at worst.

If you suspect someone of telling porkies, having a quick look online seems like a reasonable thing to do. 

The normal methods of application-vetting are usually pretty good - doctor's reports, lab results, questionnaires where the applicant is forbidden to lie, with such lies being held against them later, should they be discovered. These all serve to align the application as much as we are able. 

The interesting thing is, the internet has added a whole new layer of information to an application - freely available to anyone who can be bothered looking. There are no laws prohibiting insurers from looking online for further information. 

What's available to insurers (and other interested spiers)

News Outlets: The annals of the internet also provide a plethora of news articles, so if someone has been in the news - for good or bad behaviour (charity, crimes, awards, near-misses) - a simple search of their name and country or city will usually provide the booty you seek. Being specific in wording yields better results, particularly if someone has a common name. 

Limitations include timing and reliable sources - the internet is not famous for being right very much of the time, but it is famous for being sensational and offering clickbait, true or false, so someone somewhere can earn half a cent in ad revenue. Dates are important here, since old news sticks around for a long time (unfortunately so, for many) and becomes irrelevant quickly. It is also easy to confuse people with the same name. 

Forums, Ads, Reviews: it's amazing what you can find out online with a few well-worded searches. You can find out what someone's whole entire internet handle is (the nickname they use for basically everything), and therefore what they think about chocolate waffles, the latest iPhone OS, or Making of a Murderer. 

People love to have their opinions heard, and you can very, very easily find out what your applicants think about a variety of topics, sort of by mistake. Once you know what their handle is (usually used for everything online from 1998), you can then search for that handle, and voila, the riches will fall upon you in ways you wish they wouldn't. Email addresses often yield similar results, but most of us have upgraded at minimum from Hotmail to Gmail at least once since the internet was invented. 

There are several free options for finding the various places someone posts or participates in online, for example, where you can find out just by someone's email address what their handle is (usually, since they are almost always linked), plus previous incarnations of the handle or email addresses for eBay and other sites. Beware discovering too much! You can't unsee it. 

Social Media: While most people have some degree of privacy set up on their social media pages, some networks simply aren't set up for privacy. It is easy - without befriending or following - to see what someone is up to, including what they ate for dinner. This is the most obvious first port of call for investigations. 

Limitations are privacy settings, and an ethical conundrum arises when an insurer may deliberately faux-befriend a potential client to get deeper into their profile to mine information, using either a fake profile or blatantly, their own. This lands us squarely in creepyville. 

Another problem is simply the massive amount of banalities you'd have to sift through to get to the themes of someone's life. How much pizza is 'unhealthy'? What if you can see threads of psychological problems that they themselves may not have even identified? The possibilities of partially-formed, half-pie, useless discoveries are endless. On the plus side, if they haven't mentioned just how healthy they are, you'll soon get the idea - organic bran muffin recipes shared, triathlons participated in, claims of bliss from all that healthiness. 

Court records, Bankruptcy, Investigations: This is a bit more extensive but these records are publicly available upon request, under freedom of information laws. 

Making judgements based on internet information

This is a problem area. Most of us have some prior judgements based on the activities of certain 'types' of people, and it's easy to judge someone you don't know from a photo of them being, in your eyes, foolish. 

This is why this is such a grey area for insurers. How do you ethically manage all of this information? It's like looking into someone's bedroom window just because they left their curtains open and the light on. It becomes more a case of where our lines are drawn than anything, and what is fair and reasonable and ethical. 

Being facts-based operators, underwriters (and their sleuth assistants) need to have checks and balances in place to ensure that only quality information gets through and is filtered, and a person is not being treated unfairly based on arbitrary views on certain activities.

What if the internet is wrong?

It is possible that the information you find online may not be true. It may be outdated, it may be the wrong person, it could be a joke without context, it could be the lyrics to a song they like, it could be a fake account. This means that the information we can find is useful, but also very limited. The internet is a big place. 

There are some avenues that are more reliable than others, but any online discoveries would need to be able to be verified and backed up from multiple angles before they could be used. This is hard - impressions can't be undone, and that creates bias. 

Communication with applicants

It may be useful for clients to know before they start their application that anything found online can be used as evidence to deny an application for cover. This helps to encourage truth-telling so an accurate reflection of a person's risk profile can be made. 

How to manage all this information

It is an applicant's choice what they do with their existence, with an insurer's job only to offer cover based on specific risks. It is insurers' ethical responsibility to ensure that everyone who applies for insurance cover gets a fair assessment, but it is also in an insurer's best interests to accurately charge for certain risks. Extra information may result in further questioning of an applicant, which is helpful in some circumstances. 

No insurer wants to be bad-mouthed online for going to extreme lengths to squirrel out information on their applicants - it's unseemly and  nobody likes a stalker, particularly when it's the company you just applied for insurance with. 

But, insurers now have a plethora of information at their fingertips to enhance the underwriting process and get the most accurate risk profile possible, so it makes sense to make the most of it.