Governments + Telecoms Data = Utopia?

Kathy Calvin is the President and CEO of the United Nations Foundation, a charity that essentially spends the money it raises on helping to realize the goals of the UN. In other words, she is a well-connected player who knows media, politics and business because she has been a press secretary for politicians and managed media relations for big corporations. Whilst it seemingly went unnoticed during MWC, there was something she stated in an interview given to a beatifically smiling and docile journalist that deserves some further consideration. Calvin said:

We really need to make sure governments are asking the questions about what data do they need to get to make better policies, and then what can they be doing to help work with the telcos about the data that they’re producing that tells us how well, what kind of progress we’re making…

Mobile World Live was so satisfied with this softest of softball interviews (1 Facebook share at time of writing) that a few months later they reiterated that telcos should give data to governments in a follow-on article (1 Facebook share, 2 LinkedIn shares at time of writing).

In an interview at the recent Mobile World Congress, Calvin said data produced by the use of telecommunications equipment can provide authorities with information capable of highlighting the progress being made and drive change, but – as with many mobile for good initiatives – this is reliant on partnerships.

She added governments needed to communicate with operators to highlight what data they would need to “make better policies” and track the progress being made in key areas.

Just listen to how tone deaf our industry can be whilst congratulating itself for the job it is doing. Look!! See!! A really important politically-connected person has come to our conference and she is talking about cuddly lovely things like ending poverty. Let’s agree with everything she says without a moment’s hesitation!!

Calvin’s message is so incredibly simple that any intelligent listener should demand caveats. Giving more data to governments is not guaranteed to make the world a better place. As an American, Kathy Calvin should know that already. Her government has been taking huge amounts of data from telcos but none of it has been used to reduce the poverty of her fellow citizens. On the contrary, there is good evidence that data gathering in the USA is used to reinforce racial and economic divisions. Consider this piece in Techcrunch which observed:

…there are more covert surveillance methods employed, in which housing authorities are forging partnerships with police to track movements of residents; government-subsidized cell phones are distributed and their GPS chips used to track.

Recent events have further highlighted that telcos should never unquestioningly pass data to others without concern for the harm that may be done as a result. To recap, the world just learned of an enormous scandal where the kind of corporation that gathers lots of data (Facebook, gazillions of shares at time of writing) did not do enough to prevent user data being obtained by politicians and their subordinates (a.k.a. the kind of people who run governments). If it can be a scandal to give data to people ultimately employed to govern the USA, how do we feel about the ridiculous generalization that it would be a good thing if telcos everywhere gave more data to the governments of every country?

Perhaps the excuse for this flippant attitude towards data gathering and analysis is that it is meant to be in a good cause. We should use data to help poor people! I am all for helping poor people, but let us not be naive. Do we think that poor people are more or less likely to be abused by governments? Are the poor equipped to protect themselves from the consequences of their data being exploited, or are they more vulnerable than anyone else in society? Before you answer that question, please recall that another recent scandal concerned international aid charities employing staff who routinely paid for sex with women and children in the crisis-hit regions they were sent to help.

So please stop the grinning when supposedly important people congratulate themselves for doing a great job. Oxfam congratulated themselves for doing a great job. Cambridge Analytica congratulated themselves for doing a great job. Even Mark Zuckerberg used to congratulate himself for doing a great job, but nobody is talking about him being the future President of the USA any longer. When people congratulate themselves that is when they are most complacent. We can never afford to be complacent when gathering and sharing data about people, even if our intentions are good. Next time the telecoms industry wants to flirt with a politically-connected big shot, we should skip all the mutual flattery and ask some hard questions about how we can help the world’s poorest whilst guaranteeing we do them no harm.

Eric Priezkalns
Eric Priezkalns
Eric is the Editor of Commsrisk. Look here for more about the history of Commsrisk and the role played by Eric.

Eric is also the Director of the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG), a global association of professionals working in risk management and business assurance for communications providers.

Previously Eric was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and he has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and other telcos. He was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.