Nº 1 2014 > Big Data
Viewpoints from ITU Telecom World 2013
Big data sparked a lively debate during the Big Conversation session at ITU Telecom World 2013, in Bangkok, Thailand, last November.
Chairing the conversation was TM Forum’s Tony Poulos, aiming to go beyond the buzz word to find out more about the opportunities and challenges that surround big data.
Deflating the hype, Digital Intelligence consultant Paul Papadimitriou suggested that data — an inert body of information — can only be turned into meaningful knowledge (or, indeed, monetized) through human intervention. The sheer volume generated each day by public and private authorities, institutions and individuals, leads us to search out how to find “the needle inside the huge haystack of data out there.”
But it is not just about size. Andy Haire, former Deputy Director General for telecommunications and post of the Singapore regulator, Infocomm, described how the combination of low-cost computing and storing facilities is “a potent cocktail” enabling information on individuals, their habits and behaviours to be exposed — and in some cases, misappropriated or used to draw wrong, and potentially damaging, conclusions.
With big data, the emphasis moves from causation to correlation, the panellists agreed. Associating data and predicting behaviour are already driving business models in the real world — such as credit analysis based on whether or not a person uses capital letters in an SMS (those who did not were considered a bad risk), or insurance firms tracking average driving speeds to re-evaluate policy costs.
This might work, but is it fair and should it be allowed? Mr Papadimitriou called for a more scientific angle, rather than assuming that because a thing happens 90 per cent of the time, it will always happen. He recognized the value of big data, saying that “we should be happy to have these tools to make better and more informed decisions”, while warning that we have to avoid equating assumption with fact.
Data security and personal privacy are key, according to Charles Brookson of Azenby — even if definitions of privacy and whom we trust are subjective, varying between countries and cultures. He urged a mature, sensible and balanced approach to formulating a data trust framework, because “government regulations can’t catch up with what people are actually doing, as they are still based on clockwork exchanges and formal designs of data protection which have nothing to do with privacy.”
All agreed with Mr Papadimitriou that “you don’t know what privacy is until its loss hits you.” Finding a balance between surveillance and personal privacy is difficult, given what Mr Brookson called “the openness of these structures and whether you think — as a citizen — that everything is available to public scrutiny but subject to checks and controls under law.”
Recent revelations as to the extent of government surveillance in the world of big data are, for this panel at least, hardly surprising. Establishing a balanced framework or even self-regulation may not be a straightforward task.
Opportunities and challenges
A session on “Big Data: Opportunities and Challenges” provided contrasting perspectives from expert thinker Viktor Mayer-Schönberger of the Oxford Internet Institute, policy guru Daniel Cooper of Covington & Burling, and Head of Identity and Privacy services (EMEA), Harm Jan Arendshorst, Verizon Enterprise Solutions.
“True value of data is only reaped if data are being reused over and over and over again for multiple purposes”, said Mr Mayer-Schönberger, giving the example of Google using search terms to predict seasonal flu outbreaks. He foresees telecommunication companies fully entering the big data arena, where those who have the platforms to collect the data would have the ability to extract more value from datasets not only by using them themselves, but also by licensing them to others. But he warned that operators might be caught between a need to boost revenue streams from their subscriber base, while at the same time trying to assuage privacy worries and hold onto the business of customers who might choose at any moment to switch to a more privacy-conscious operator.
“Existing legal frameworks are quite inadequate to address the big data phenomenon,” according to Mr Cooper. Current data protection laws are weak in regard to data retention and transparency. The world of big data often involves a secondary use of data for different purposes, many of which may not be known at the time the data are collected. There is a desire, particularly within the information technology and pharmaceutical sectors, to be able to use personal data for research purposes. Nevertheless, cautioned Mr Cooper, “There are a lot of dangers in the world of big data we must be mindful of”, and regulation is essential to make sure that organizations play by the rules and use their data correctly.
Building trust is critical for players operating in this environment. “The relation with big data and trust and privacy is evident in every initiative”, noted Mr Arendshorst. Customers want and need to trust their provider. “Trust is a valuable currency in the marketplace. Expect more trust-related services”, said Mr Mayer-Schönberger. Individuals may not understand the complexities of the big data ecosystem, but they need to be able to trust societal institutions to use data correctly, according to Mr Cooper.
Moderator Andy Haire posed the question of data breaches and whether regulators should be able to force companies to undertake costly data protection activities. The law needs to be guided by common sense, argued Mr Cooper.
Summing up, Mr Arendshorst voiced hopes for building future communication networks that can be trusted and used for fun. Now that we have instant Internet access, we need to protect ourselves. “We want to stimulate use of connectivity and hope to build a secure, trustworthy collaborative environment.” He noted that “the opportunities are great, but laws must change. The challenge is balancing privacy rules whilst not damaging initiatives.” Optimistic that we will solve the 1984-like surveillance threat that big data conjures up, Mr Mayer-Schönberger is, however, less optimistic of human society’s ability to constrain big data analysis — fearing that we might fall prey to a dystopian scenario.
Privacy for citizens
Who owns the data items that leave our devices? And what privacy expectations are reasonable? These were some of the questions debated during a panel session on how world citizens can ensure their privacy in a digital world.
AllTheContent’s Clement Charles was clear that data belong to us, the citizens, and we should control what is done with our data. According to Mr Charles, “It is wrong to think that there is a will for citizens to be tracked.” In privacy terms, he noted that the current balance between privacy and lack of privacy was more heavily weighted towards lack of privacy. This balance needs to be constantly adapted. Consumers, governments and stakeholders need to be educated about privacy, and where necessary there should be a change in mindset. “The current NSA (the United States National Security Agency/Central Security Service) issue is the first in a long series showing how the pain of not having privacy is associated with the gain of having great digital services”, he said, emphasizing that there is a huge opportunity in guaranteeing privacy to citizens.
Panellists echoed the need for a broader understanding of the balance between privacy and digital services. According to Pat Walshe of GSMA, “Devices and users have become broadcasters of data. But with this technology shift, we have not had a cultural shift. People are not aware of the data intent; how data will be used. The challenge now is to provide people with simple clear choices, clear information.”
With so many new technologies and services appearing on the market, regulation is not keeping pace with development. “With this revolution and upheaval, some areas are a bit of a wild west. We need to see how we can best balance and enable all these new services”, said Adriana Nugter, an Independent Advisor. The panel unanimously agreed that the current privacy status is unsustainable — after all, how many of us actually read the lengthy privacy policies when we sign up for something new? Simplification is key. “Principles need to be set out in a simple document [for users] to sign off on”, said McCarthy Tétrault’s Timothy Ellam.
So what is the solution? A top-down approach is required, argued Mr Charles, even on an international level, to safeguard privacy concerns. Trust frameworks, if overseen by governments, could enable consumers to accept certain conditions for usage of their data. What is important now is to create a basis for conduct that will be of greater benefit than cost to world citizens. Current privacy regulation needs to be changed to enable business and innovation to flourish. After all, “Mobile-derived data have the possibility to meet very pressing public policy objectives”, Mr Walshe reminded the panel.
Creating the right regulation may be key but there needs to be a careful balance, juggling the needs of consumers, the industry and government. The onus for ensuring consumer privacy cannot just be the responsibility of operators when there are now so many other players in the ecosystem. Stakeholders must come together to foster trust and create an environment where innovation can flourish for the benefit of all.