COLOGNE — A healthier diet, exercise, better living. Who wouldn’t want that? In contrast to the complacent masses, there is that small group of fitness-obsessed people who really do try and work on a perfect version of themselves, daily, conscientiously, verifiably.

These are also the ideal clients for insurance companies. To meet their goal of a better me, self-optimizers even voluntarily let themselves be monitored.

And now – the first major insurer in Europe to do so – the Generali Group will be controlling client fitness, lifestyle and nutrition electronically. For this so-called telemonitoring the company is cooperating with the South African insurer Discovery, which developed the Vitality health program that rewards clients with coupons, gifts and discounts if they maintain a healthy lifestyle. And it is verified by individual digital monitoring.

Consumers who opt for Generali’s new life or health insurance model have to provide the company with regular information about their lifestyle. That works with the help of an app that documents check-up appointments, counts walking steps, measures sports activities. Healthy nutrition also is part of the package.

"This allows us to strengthen our ties to our clients," Generali CEO Mario Greco told investors recently. "We also influence their behavior, and healthier clients are better for us."

In a first step, policy holders who behave in healthly ways get coupons for travel and a fitness studio. The next step is premium reductions. The new policies should be available in Europe within the next 12 to 18 months.

Generali is thus taking a big step in the use of personal client information or "Big Data." In the same category are attempts on the part of insurers to get information about driver behavior with the help of black boxes in cars and turn it into a point system that would impact policy pricing. In privacy-conscious Germany client interest has lagged behind the high demand registered so far in Italy and the UK.

In addition to Generali, Allianz, Axa and other insurers are working on similar projects. They are promising clients to help them as they pursue a healthier lifestyle. All the companies stress that they only use data that clients give them freely. The companies want to get to know their clients as precisely as possible so they can offer individual rates.

Risks and rewards

The thinking is that people who follow a healthy lifestyle cost the insurers less money. In return they will receive premium reductions. The opposite also holds true: whoever takes more lifestyle risks pays more. Long-term, that’s the greatest risk of the new system: whoever is unwilling to share such information about themselves with the insurer will eventually be bound to pay considerably more for insurance.

One of the pioneers of the new system is the American health insurer United Healthcare. For three years it has been offering clients a discount if they take a specific number of steps daily and can prove it. Generali is now following a similar path.

Consumer-protection advocates are skeptical. "I am very critical of the idea that policy holders provide individual information to receive discounted offers," says Peter Grieble of the Verbraucherzentrale (consumer advice center) Baden-Württemberg. "The client doesn’t know how his data is going to be processed by the company and who has access to it."

It should be noted however that already now private health insurers have a comprehensive overview of each client’s state of health in the form of medical bills and prescriptions.

Individualized rates risk undermining insurance's most basic principles. Insurers balance various risks out across many clients and over time. That is the core of the business. With individualized rates the companies are trying to attract the "best" risks in the hopes that the competition will have to deal with the others.

Despite the advertised discounts, the companies aim is to make bigger profits. Felix Hufeld, head insurance supervisor at Germany's Federal Financial Supervisory Authority BaFin, takes a critical view of the new possibilities for data evaluation.

Speaking at a recent Suddeutsche Zeitung conference in Cologne, Hufeld said: "If we follow the thought through to its logical end, this could lead to the atomization of the collective."