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Wednesday, February 08, 2012

There will be a pushback against user profiling, big data & analytics

When it comes to Internet or telecom companies and personal data and privacy, I think there are two classes of abusive behaviour that tend to annoy end-users:

  • Revealing specific data-points without permission
  • Over-analysis of user behaviour during longer periods of time
The first class is more "obvious" - we've seen outcries about abuses from companies such as Google (with its WiFi logging and Google Streetmap content), Telefonica O2 (revealing phone numbers to websites during mobile browsing) and Carrier IQ (logging all on-handset activity).

But the second type is more insidious, yet leaves many people with a sense of unease. Just how much does Facebook know about you? What can Vodafone or AT&T or Etisalat deduce from your mobile phone usage - and link to your billing/registration details? What exactly are the "dark sides" of Google new privacy policy as it integrates its various personal datasets

Of course, this worry isn't confined to telecom and Internet companies. Both Microsoft and Apple probably see more of our behaviour than we feel comfortable with. And, obviously, governmental scrutiny extends to both instantaneous activity (eg CCTV, passport checks) and longer-term analytical capabilities.

Many libertarians rightly dislike the idea of governments joining the dots & connecting various datasets about citizens. The state should fear the people, not the other way around.

The same is true of online and telecoms user data as well. It needs to be collected to *serve* end-users, not creepily over-analyse them for the purpose of selling advertising, or attempting to up-sell them. I always have a sense of unease when I speak to a OSS/BSS companies that try to predict when customers are about to churn through service usage analytics, for example. I don't want to have my intentions inferred, especially by companies I'm paying money to. It's slightly different for Facebook, where I am consciously aware that I am "the product", as it's a free service.

Now some companies seem to use analytics responsibly - they're open about it, and demonstrate how it offers value. Amazon's recommendations are pretty useful, for example - and moreover, they are not intrusive (this is critical). Conversely, many mobile operators know exactly where they have coverage gaps, from their RAN analytics, but do nothing to plug the holes (some get the same data from their social media analytics & ignore that too).

Either way, we are likely to see more abuses (and also more useful instances as well). Both telecom companies and Internet players are acquiring more and more personal data - and are aggressively expanding their analytics capabilities. I'd expect "big data" to be a big deal at MWC.

However, I sense a mounting push-back against privacy invasion and over-analysis. We already see regular outcries about Facebook's fluid and questionable privacy policy and website tactics. Disgruntled people use that very same service (as well as Twitter and others) to complain vociferously - and have succeeded in getting changes made rapidly by the company. CarrierIQ fell before the lynch-mob of social media too - and O2 shut down its phone-number exposure within hours after a concerted online campaign.

I expect we'll see more of that type of thing... but I also think we'll see a fightback about on the analytics front too. I'm expecting to see a steady rise of behaviours and software tools that deliberately set out to undermine oveer-analysis of customer data, especially where there is low transparency, or the value accrues disproportionately to the company rather than user.

We'll see software plug-ins that log you out of Google automatically unless you're specifically searching or using gmail.com. We'll see obfuscatory smartphone apps that send "spare" bundled SMS
to random (well, actually pre-agreed) numbers. We might get easier or automated ways to switch off the cellular radio to avoid location tracking. We'll get software layers that make it easier to manage multiple Facebook accounts. We may get ways to share or pool "identities" - if necessary with record-keeping to keep law enforcement happy. We'll get browsers that generate random traffic & go to random websites to minimise any profiling from the likes of Phorm.

You get the idea. There is a built-in negative feedback loop with customer data and analytics. If the "market" perceives that over-analysis of "big data" is a danger, then there will be a concerted effort to pollute those datasets, made ever easier by social media, HTML5 and smartphones apps. The interesting thing is that this trend will apply equally to telcos and Internet companies.

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