February 5, 2019
A Video You Need to See
by Paul Carroll
My favorite video in a very long time is this one, of a man staging a slip-and-fall fraud at his workplace—while a security camera records every moment. He says in the article, “I didn’t do it. It was a mistake.” But huh? The video shows him dumping ice on the floor and lying down next to it, after which he filed an insurance claim for his “injuries.”
This sort of video is good news for insurers, which are always fighting fraud, which are trying to prevent accidents and which have a new friend: increasingly ubiquitous cameras and sensors.
When a 19-year-old allegedly held up a bank in Austin in December, he quickly found himself caught up in such a digital web. Security cameras spotted him climbing on a rental scooter to make his getaway. The scooter, of course, has a GPS sensor in it so the company can find it at night and recharge it, so authorities knew where the scooter went next. The scooter also has to be able to charge the user, so the authorities knew who had taken it. They then checked his cellphone, and, sure enough, he was near the bank at the time of the robbery.
Who needs Columbo when you have all those tools?
Car thefts have dropped by a third since 2000 in the U.S., partly because of new anti-theft devices but also partly because so many cars now have tracking devices that let stolen cars be found immediately. Car insurers now have access to sensor data that they can use to challenge the narratives of potential fraudsters, and cameras are increasingly capturing video of accidents on roads.
In the home, smart doorbells see who is there and may scare off intruders, or at least discourage them from taking packages left outside. Wearables and electronic assistants like the Amazon Echo and Google Home have been used to unravel alibis. (“No, sir, your wife was not still alive at such-and-such a time, as you claim.”) Such sensors will surely be resources for insurers.
Big data and artificial intelligence will also help both police and insurers spot the sorts of criminal rings that stage accidents and thefts to collect major settlements.
Now, the law of unintended consequences is still in force, so the spread of cameras and sensors won’t play out quite as any of us suspect. In a book published five years ago, Chunka Mui and I posited that the spread of cameras could drive a lot of innovation, and we were right—but not quite. For instance, we said that police would routinely wear body cams, and they do. But the cameras haven’t proved to be quite as important as evidence as we expected they’d be—context and framing turn out to be important enough that juries sometimes dismiss what they see on video. The cameras also haven’t changed police behavior as much as we had expected.
Still, we’re clearly headed in the right direction with cameras and sensors, limited just by our inventiveness in deploying them.
We might even be as successful in heading off problems as a friend of mine was many years ago when he was the victim of the world’s briefest carjacking. He was living in a dodgy neighborhood in Washington, D.C., as a young editor in the Wall Street Journal bureau there. He was pursuing a dream of becoming a licensed auto mechanic (the only student with a degree from an Ivy League university, or from the Sorbonne, that the school had ever seen) and had an old car that he kept around as a challenge. At a stoplight, a guy came up to the driver’s window, pointed a gun at my friend and ordered him out of the car. The thief engaged the clutch, and the car lurched forward and stalled. The thief tried again. Same result. A third time. Still no go. My friend, knowing just how dodgy his clutch was, was still standing nearby as the thief jumped out of the car, threw the keys at my friend and ran off.
May all our problems be resolved so quickly.