Google received little more than a slap on the wrist from Australian authorities following the furore after is was ‘caught’ and admitted capturing Wi-Fi data and personal information during its Street View image and mapping exercises. The ‘incident,’ which generated heated debate in the Australian parliament and is being duplicated in at least six other countries, raises far-reaching questions for governments, regulators and private enterprise on just how far private information can be collected, used and even compromised.
The boundaries are becoming increasingly blurred. On the one hand we have governments demanding access to calls and data being transmitted across privately telecommunications networks in the name of national security. On the other, we have communications service providers (CSPs)and companies like Google and Amazon collecting data on customer usage in order to profile them for the purposes of offering tailored searches and product offerings in real time, supposedly making the user’s online experience more pleasurable.
The concept of an internet that is the network of the people, free of restraint by governments is coming under increasing pressure as well. The ‘net neutrality’ debate in the USA highlights just how dangerous meddling with freedom can be. The idea that the leader of any country should have the ability to ‘kill’ the internet in times of national security threat is dangerously ludicrous. If ever enacted whole economies would be crippled instantly, utilities that use the internet to monitor resources such as dams and power stations would be left exposed, security, banking and cloud services would come to a standstill – the list goes on and on. One act of ‘national security’ could bring a country to its knees without a shot being fired.
The Indian government is pushing even further by having all network critical software supplied by foreign companies subject to independent examination to ensure that it is ‘spyware free.’ The very same government is also insisting that its agencies have access to all telecommunications networks to monitor for activity that could compromise national security, but what guarantees are there that this information will not be used for less critical purposes such as snooping on political opponents, tracking down suspected criminals, etc.?
Less dramatic, but equally pervasive is the idea of filtering networks to prevent ‘undesirable data’ from being transmitted is nothing short of censorship. Many governments are already filtering out pornographic, religious and evocative content from websites they don’t happen to like. The concept of protecting citizens from bad things is not only flawed it is repressive and reminds us of regimes in the not too distant past that collapsed using similar methodologies, but only after doing some serious damage.
Getting back to the basic privacy issue, although the objectives of governments and enterprise may be radically different the means of implementation are dramatically similar. The administration of the filtering and data gathering has to be done at network level and most likely by the CSP. Whether governments introduce legislation forcing CSPs to provide them the tools to access the data or if the CSPs themselves collect the data to use for profiling, targeted advertising or to sell to third parties, it is the CSPs that will foot the bill.
Let’s not underestimate the potential cost of these exercises, the processes involved and the security and regulatory issues surrounding them. As if CSPs don’t have enough issues to contend with trying to be profitable businesses. The TM Forum already has a number of initiatives working on parts of this puzzle. No doubt, as pressure on CSPs mounts, more will look to organizations like the Forum for guidance. The bigger question is whether we, as an industry, can do anything about it.