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On Location

A year or so ago, there was a great furore about network privacy, kicked up by some WikiLeaks articles about the role of security agencies in tracking mobile users. There was a memorable press conference in which someone stood up, holding a smartphone and made the startling revelation that “if you have one of these, your mobile operator knows where you are”.

We paraphrase somewhat, but well yes, obviously: if they didn’t, it wouldn’t work. There’s clearly a great deal of ignorance about how the mobile network operates, but then why should consumers care? They just expect it to work. But there’s a difference between an operator knowing where you are so it can route calls to your smart device of choice, and using that information to send you things you don’t want or even know you are going to receive.

And it’s this borderline between legitimate use of location data (making the network work) and using it for commercial purposes that creates problems. It reminds us of the ways in which we happily surrender information to supermarkets (“do you have a clubcard?” Well, no, actually, but that’s another story) and providers like Amazon (customers who bought this also bought that – jolly useful, really), yet baulk at the somehow invidious use of mobile data by our MNO.

This is a problem. The same people who provide up to the minute details of their activity to Facebook may be upset to consider that their MNO might want to use similar information to present them with offers, services and so on. And yet, at conference after conference we are told that MNOs (and other service providers) have a unique position of trust with their customers and can act as brokers between them and other players.

Something doesn’t ring true here – if you’ll pardon the pun. We are expecting MNOs to somehow monetise the data they collect by putting it to interesting – but if we trust an OTT provider more than we trust our airtime provider, how can these new models emerge?

MNOs need to take a leadership position here. They need to make it clear that the will only use data with the permission of users (beyond doing what they need to do to make their networks function correctly) and be explicit about the benefits of using location information sensitively.

Today’s mobile consumer understands how great it is to use Google maps to pinpoint his or her location relative to where they want to be. With the right messages and propositions, MNOs ought to be able to create the same kind of trust. It’s essential that they do – if the kind of differentiated price plans that are so frequently discussed are going to evolve into innovative service offers, then this kind of trust in which context, location and activity data helps create personalised services has to be established. And MNOs should be easily able to counter the kind of paranoia that wonders why they should know where their subscribers are.