PRISM – Will Telcos See the Light or Turn to the Dark Side?

Or – is the PRISM Debacle Ultimately Good for Telecoms?

So Congress knew and was entirely relaxed about the fact that the NSA could reach into the lives of citizens by directly sucking the information from Telcos’ servers. And Obama’s response to the outcry when we knew the extent to which we were being watched was basically ‘live with it’ or as he actually said, “You can’t have 100-percent security and then have 100-percent privacy.”

He has a point. He also could have told us. I asked a few folks in our industry whether this whole thing was as shocking as we at first thought.

Issue One – Trust. For a while BillingViews has believed that one of the main currencies that a Telco has to play with is trust, a safe partner in the digital world. Surely, now we know the extent to which our lives are being watched this will vanish. On the face of it maybe, but as Chris Newton-Smith, VP of Marketing at Redknee (winner of the The Costa Rican Giant Stone Balls Award)said, “as an individual consumer I think we can accept Obama’s trade off.” We now live in a world where wars will be fought in cyberspace, so I think Chris is right. But we live and work in the industry and it remains to be seen whether the consumers of the world accept this situation. As Jonathan Jensen, Head of New Products at Ukash pointed out, “there is definitely a question of trust in telcos and other technology companies that consumers engage with, however what alternative do most consumers have? Am I going to stop using iCloud? No, because I need it.”

Conclusion One – ‘Live with it.’

Issue Two – Big Data. We have suffered a lot of Powerpoint Poisoning over the past few years about Big Data and Analytics. Or to put it mathematically, Big Data + Analytics = The Best Customer Experience Ever. More interesting for our industry is the fact that this type of ‘big data’ extraction, processing and analysis is alive and well. And living in NSA databases.

Oddly, the best examples of ‘positive’ use of data can be found in China, according to Andy Tiller, VP of Marketing at AsiaInfo Linkage. One chinese operator is using their product “to create target segments for marketing campaigns which are then executed in real-time at the ideal moment for each individual customer. This is based on real-time knowledge of the customer’s context, including: current location, device being used, and current activity on their mobile device (eg applications opened, URLs being visited, even phrases being typed into search engines…).”

So, the capability exists, the only difference is that the NSA are not interested in marketing, merely watching.

Conclusion Two – Big Data analytics is here, it is a question of what you do with it.

Issue Three – Customer Experience. The initial reaction to the PRISM saga might well be that Telcos are not being honest with their customers. They should have told us what data was being passed to whom and for what purpose (maybe they did but it was so buried in the small print that we fell asleep before we got to it). As Jensen says, “telcos and the rest have a duty of care to customers to ensure they are very clear about what type of data they may hand over and under what circumstances.” Ultimately, it is more a question of “the secrecy surrounding what may or may not happen rather than what actually happens.”

Conclusion Three – Telcos should be more honest and Governments should let them be so.

Will any good come from this?

Yes. Issues and stories like this force operators to face real problems. Delivering on customer experience is a real problem and is too abstract to really focus on. As Tiller says, “PRISM will increase distrust of operators by consumers, so operators will have to work even harder to get customers to opt in.”

There’s the thing – opting in.

Operators have to build the trust to get customers to want to opt in because the benefits of doing so are obvious and tangible. Essentially, the fluffy concepts of a ‘better customer experience’ must give way to actual concrete benefits. As Shira Levine, head of BSS at research house Infonetics puts it, “there needs to be opt-in controls, and operators need to provide customers with a really compelling reason to opt in – a specific benefit, rather than just a vague “so we can give you a better experience.”

As usual with these big stories, once the initial shock passes, it sometimes brings a compelling reason for telcos to invest in strategies that deliver practical benefits for their customers. If the Government needs the data to protect us then surely that is a good thing – handled badly in this case. If the Telco would like our data to provide better, more relevant services then that too must be a good thing. They need to handle this well.

Conclusion – it is just possible this is a win-win, not a lose-lose, but Telcos need to step up and step up quickly.

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About Alex Leslie 400 Articles
Alex was Founder and CEO of the Global Billing Association (GBA), a trade body focused on the communications sector. He is a sought after speaker and chairman at leading industry conferences, and is widely published in communications magazines around the world. Until it closed, he was Contributing Editor, OSS/BSS for Connected Planet.

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