Photo: Adam Berry/Getty Images

Health insurance companies are paying for reams of personal data about us, their customers — where we live, whether we pay our bills on time, even our social media posts and online shopping habits. Which is, undeniably, kind of scary.

Driving the news: ProPublica had a very thorough story yesterday on what insurers are collecting, how they're collecting it, and what they're doing with it. But some of the responses to that story were missing a few pieces, so I think it's worth a closer look.

How it works, via ProPublica:

  • "Are you a woman who recently changed your name? You could be newly married and have a pricey pregnancy pending. Or maybe you’re stressed and anxious from a recent divorce. That, too, the computer models predict, may run up your medical bills."
  • "Are you a woman who’s purchased plus-size clothing? You’re considered at risk of depression. Mental health care can be expensive."

There are good uses for some of this data, at least theoretically. Factors like poverty and education do affect our health, and to the extent insurers are truly interested in keeping their patients healthy, knowing who's at risk is the only way to target those resources effectively.

But: The obvious fear is that insurers will use this information to jack up people's rates if they seem high-risk — even based on generalizations about tangential data.

But, but: There's almost no market right now where they can do that. It's illegal for employer-based plans and individual plans, like those sold through the Affordable Care Act, to discriminate against people because of their health.

But, but, but: Such a market is about to open up, with the Trump administration's expansion of short-term health plans, which are allowed to turn away high-risk customers.

  • As ProPublica notes, this information can also help insurers take stock of who lives in a broader geographic area, and decide whether they're likely to make money if they sell plans there.

The bottom line: “No one gave anyone permission to do this," a former industry official told ProPublica.

Go deeper

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Politics: Pence chief of staff Marc Short tests positive for coronavirus — COVID-19 looms over White House Halloween celebrations
  2. Health: Fauci says maybe we should mandate masks if people don't wear them — America was sick well before it ever got COVID-19
  3. World: Polish President Andrzej Duda tests positive for COVID-19.

Pence chief of staff Marc Short tests positive for coronavirus

Marc Short with Katie Miller, Vice President Pence's communications director, in March. Photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times via Reuters

Marc Short, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, tested positive for the coronavirus Saturday and is quarantining, according to a White House statement.

Why it matters: Short is Pence's closest aide, and was one of the most powerful forces on the White House coronavirus task force.

5 hours ago - World

Opposition leader Leopoldo López flees Venezuela

Venezuelan opposition politician Leopoldo López outside the Spanish embassy in Caracas, in 2019. Photo: Juan Barreto/AFP via Getty Images

Leopoldo López, a former political prisoner and prominent Venezuelan opposition leader, has left the country, his Popular Will party confirmed in a statement Saturday.

Why it matters: He's been an influential force in the push to oust President Nicolás Maduro's regime and a mentor to opposition leader Juan Guaidó. He'd been in the Spanish ambassador's Caracas residence since escaping house arrest in April 2019 following a failed military uprising.