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Mobile networks told to sniff punters' privates for profit

How else to make money once everyone has a smartphone?

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Mobile network operators will have to be more cavalier in their approach to customer data if they're going to be able to make money once mobile penetration becomes ubiquitous.

That's according to a new white paper from Analysys Mason, which was sponsored by CommProve, which just happens to have to perfect technology to make that happen. Despite that, there are some interesting details which should make worrying reading for aspiring mobile operators.

Looking at figures from networks around the world, Analysys Mason concludes that when mobile penetration is around 20 per cent – ie, with one in five people owning a mobile phone – then those people will spend as much as 15 per cent of their disposable income to keep it running. But once penetration hits 60 per cent then that figure can drop by more than two-thirds, to 4 per cent, as the status symbol value of owning the device disappears.

That leaves operators squeezed, and seeking revenue elsewhere, which is where CommProve comes in with its software (already installed by around 15 operators) which reaches out into all parts of a network to gather information and build up a real-time profile of every customer:

"We can do deep packet inspection, to see what the user is doing, where they're going, and we can tell where they are too," the company's CEO told us, emphasising that the system can anonymise that data too, should the network operator so desire it.

People hate the idea of network operators spying on them. They'll happily hand over their most-personal information to Google and Facebook, let Amazon and Opera see every website they visit, and tell a stranger their passwords for a bar of chocolate, but being tracked by a mobile operator is apparently a step too far.

Which is odd really. We're all tracked by our mobile phones, all day every day, and (in Europe) that information is stored for two years in case the police decide to take an interest in our historical movements. But our sense of privacy is being eroded, slowly, and voluntary schemes, such as O2 More and Orange Shots, have been busily recruiting the less-concerned youth demographic with nothing more than the promise of discount vouchers. But in general it's not privacy concerns which have prevented more operators taking advantage of their stored data.

"Subscriber information is scattered throughout the organisation, making it difficult for mobile operators to gain a unified view of their customers," explains the white paper.

CommProve, and its competitors, tout their systems as facilitating better customer service, noting that if the help desk can see every dropped call, every broken data session and failed download, then the help desk can offer better support. But that's a long-term return on investment. Meanwhile the CEO's promise to "identify 'green users' with enough reliable bandwidth to make use of a premium offering" will sell a lot more software, while the customers get used to becoming the product. ®

Mobile application security vulnerability report

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