Privacy vs perceived security

02 Sep 2013

As featured on TM Forum's the Insider blog.

In the light of exposés by the likes of Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, ‘normal’ people are starting to question whether governments have crossed the line of national security to invading people’s lives. At which point does the perceived security of the nation require the total dissolution of an individual’s privacy?

It is becoming very difficult for a growing number of people to equate the two and whilst governments can continuously argue the merits of their activities and the vast budgets they are spending on them in the national interest, at what point do they become accountable for such extreme measures as logging all communications passing through their national networks and beyond.

We can argue for days how and why we got to this stage but where and when, if ever, lines will be drawn, or should we all just be resolved to the fact that we have nothing ‘personal’ left and that all those hard fought civil liberties that our forefathers achieved will be simply disregarded.

Look at airport security around the world since 9/11. The TSA in the USA has not foiled a single terrorist plot or caught a single terrorist in that time. Its own “good catches” list highlights forbidden items carried by mostly forgetful, and entirely innocent, people—the sorts of guns and knives that would have been just as easily caught by pre-9/11 screening procedures.

Not that the TSA is expert at that; it regularly misses guns and bombs in tests and real life. Even its top “good catch”—a passenger with C4 explosives—was caught on his return flight; TSA agents missed it the first time through.

With all the supposedly sophisticated big data at its disposal why hasn’t it worked out that I pass through airport security points over 100 times a year and in 12 years have never been stopped for carrying prohibited items, let alone knives an firearms. Wouldn’t you think I should be allowed the use of fast track or reduced measures in view of that record?

With all the best of intentions that our politicians may have in protecting us, they are creating an environment that is encouraging people to take on aliases and different profiles in an attempt, not only to outwit fraudsters, phishers and hackers, but to keep something private for themselves.

The communications industry’s current obsession is with big data and using it for customer profiling in order to improve the customer experience. In the light of growing privacy concerns, this may well backfire and drive the customer elsewhere.

It is difficult to believe that any amount of data analysis will tell an operator that I have had a bad day and am very irritable, or that my cat died or my child fell and got hurt. Trying to promote a new phone plan, or cat food or a new range of kid's clothing at this time may have the opposite effect.

My fear - and the fear of many senior telco execs - is that getting it wrong may be all too easy and that customers may react very badly and go elsewhere or, worse still, become detractors.

Explaining the use of customer analysis and the benefits to customers, and then giving them the choice of a better level of service or maintenance of their privacy would make a lot more sense.

It would certainly be better than a ‘whistle-blower’ from your organization going public about how personal data and people’s privacy is being constantly infringed by big data activities in order to increase sales.

Perhaps the telecom and digital services sectors could set an example here and eliminate the chance that they may be perceived as NSA clones. Just because security agencies can get away with it, it doesn’t mean we can.

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