Ovum’s latest survey into consumer concerns about privacy and use of personal data may just be the tip of the iceberg. As more disclosures of data collection and storage become public knowledge, the backlash may throw many organizations that rely on the sale of this data into disarray.

In the last two weeks, The Insider has been exposed to presentations by big name internet operations showing off not only the extent of data being collected but also how easy it is to access, process, analyze and utilize for monetary and other gains. This is not to say that any of these activities are illegal, but for many the knowledge that their every move in the digital space is being monitored and recorded, and is being sold on to advertisers, government bodies and regulatory authorities, may be too much to bear.

The constant debate over who ‘owns’ a customer means very little in this surreal digital data dimension. CSPs have to understand that just because their customer pays them a line subscription they don’t necessarily own them, and knowing who they call and what websites they visit barely converts into valuable assets. The moment anybody connects to a network access point, and even before that if they are mobile customers, someone, somewhere is tracking their every move, literally.

Location tracking of mobile phones is pretty accurate these days; IP and device MAC addresses can become, over time, very accurate means of linking to a person. Every financial transaction, purchase, search query, site visit, etc. helps companies like Google to build an incredibly detailed profile. Facebook’s drive into commerciality and its endless push to offer one-click secure access and identity verification into other commercial sites is just the start. ‘Shopfronts’ on Facebook are also generating some formidable profiling. Tie this with a view of one’s complete network of family and friends and the whole scenario begins to unfold.

While CSPs dabble with big data and tiptoe through the hype and hard sell, companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook have already mastered its use and are reaping the benefits. Google demonstrated the most incredible queries into petabytes of data live at TM Forum’s recent Big Data Summit in Amsterdam, with results in less than two seconds. This makes real-time analysis of a customer and linkage to other systems to offer services that they may be interested in happen in the blink of an eye.

Facebook demonstrated remarkably successful campaigns for Burberry and BT at the Middle East Summit in Dubai this week. These appealed to users they already know and are getting to know much better. The concept that analysis of customers is a grouping exercise has been shot down in flames. Averages and medians for customer profiles have proven it to be next to useless, now the average is ‘one’. Profiling to the power of one is the new creed and it’s happening even while you are reading this blog.

The telecom industry in its cautiousness may be slipping behind in the ‘data wars’ but may be viewed by customers in a more trusting light. Not being able to profile customers in real time could actually be a blessing in disguise, but only time will tell. The big issue, reverting back to the Ovum survey, is now more a concern over privacy and being ‘tracked.’

Privacy, what privacy? Even if you choose to opt out it is doubtful the data collection will stop; it may simply not be used for your benefit, but who knows what happens to it, or where it lives, and for how long. And while those data dealers may be giving regulators and customers assurances of their data’s safety, what happens if it ‘falls’ into the wrong hands? By my reckoning, the only way to avoid all of this is to become a hermit and live in a lead-lined cave in a deep ravine on an island in the middle of the Antarctic Ocean. Hmm, but these days, even that not be enough!

First published at TM Forum as The Insider