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From Privacy Times, November 4, 1999


 An Ohio insurance company has patented a system capable of monitoring details about drivers, including how fast they drive, how often they use their breaks, what routes they take, whether they use seat belts, signal before turning or tailgate, and what radio station they listen to.

 The system, dubbed "Autograph," was developed by Progressive Insurance so it could base insurance rates on actual driving habits, and offer auto insurance to high-risk customers.

 According to the Oct. 25 Cleveland Plain Dealer, Progressive is testing on several hundred Texas drivers a simplified system that tracks how long the vehicle is driven each day and how much time it spends in congested and accident-prone "risk zones."

 Bob McMillan, a Progressive marketing executive, said not to be alarmed by the patent's long list of surveillance capabilities, or its mention of marketers' lust for such detailed data about drivers. "We threw in the kitchen sink in the patent" as a protection against competition, he said. Maria Henderson, the company's general counsel, said the patent "describes something we're not currently doing, nor do we contemplate doing."

 The Autograph patent describes a system in which an onboard computer and sensors collect a street of driving data. It could determine if a car was breaking the speed limit on a certain street, or driving in a high-risk accident area. The data would be stored in a digitized "driving file." The car's computer would report certain "trigger events," to a central computer via a cell phone link. Such events would include a wreck or breakdown, or actions that would add to the driver's insurance bill, such as speeding, not using seat belts or turn signals, or regularly braking so hard as to activate the anti-lock brakes system.

 In Houston, customers sign a contract that discloses what Autograph will monitor. They pay an installation cost that the company won't disclose, plus $1 per month for one car and $15 per month for each additional car. McMillan told the Plain Dealer that consumers like the control they get of their insurance bill; some have improved their driving habits. "The privacy issue is there, but it really disappears as they understand the product."

 Privacy advocates point out that the data collected by Autograph is only a subpoena away from law enforcers, employers or opposing lawyers. How soon Progress will offer Autograph nationwide depends on the time it takes to ensure the system works properly, and to compile enough data to satisfy State insurance regulators, officials said.


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