Monday, May 4, 2009

Telstra found guilty of abuses of telecommunications network data

- Disclaimer. I do not represent any organisation. This is a personal blog and I talk freely about data mining from a personal perspective only. --

See a recent news article;

And also;,25197,25414690-15306,00.html

As a Data Miner for a telecommunications provider I frequently use network data in my analysis. How many calls the customer makes, at what time of day, do they communicate using voice or sms etc. I examine data pertaining to *customers* only.

Telecommunications companies often provision services wholesale for another company. This 'wholesale recipient' company will pay for the use of the network, but manage all other activities such as marketing, customer account and billing. In these cases, although the telecommunications company is responsible for supplying the network service and ensuring calls are successfully established (and likely stores data about these calls), it doesn't own the call data for that customer (who belongs to the 'wholesale recipient' company). Make sense? Use of the data that pertains to the actions of someone that is not a customer of that telecommunications company must be treated with the utmost caution.

Every data miner must be aware of data privacy laws, and in many countries failure to adhere to these laws attract heavy financial penalties for the organisation and individuals involved. In Australia some invasion of privacy laws could even potentially involve 2 years jail time.

Recently Telstra, an Australia telecommunication company (and the previous incumbent) was found guilty of serious breaches of data privacy. For the 130 page publicly accessible transcript see;

I guessing that the significant legal costs and years it has taken to get this result is obviously prohibitive for many telcos, so they let it slide. Optus didn't.

Basically, the bit that caught my eye was on item 108 (yes, I speed read the whole thing...). It is legal jargon and reads;

"Telstra asserted that total traffic travelling across its network belonged to Telstra. Optus submitted that whether it belonged to Telstra is not the question posed by cl 15.1 of the Access Agreement. The question under cl 15.1 is whether Telstra owed an obligation under that clause with respect to traffic information recorded by Telstra of communications by Optus customers on the Telstra network because that information was Confidential Information of Optus. The definition of Confidential Information identifies what is the Confidential Information of Optus. Once a CCR records information in relation to a call made by an Optus customer, that information becomes the Confidential Information of Optus because it falls within the definition of ‘Confidential Information’. "

The first sentence is shocking. In English it basically suggests that Telstra treat all network calling data as its own, and freely uses call information made by anyone on that network as it sees fit. That includes calls made by customers of wholesale or competitors companies on their network. In the case of wholesale for fixed line (land) networks Telstra will know the address and likely also the name of the customer. In the early days Optus had little choice but to use some of Telstra's fixed line infrastructure, often the last bits of copper wire that reach a household. The information of this usage was passed to Executive and board members so that they knew customer size and market share by age, geography etc. It is also highly likely (although difficult to prove) that the Telstra retail arm used the data for marketing activities and actioned direct communications to that customer. Anti-competitive to say the least...

One of the short conclusions of the legal findings were;

"For the foregoing reasons, I find that Telstra has used traffic information of Optus, or Communication Information of Optus for the purposes of the Access Agreement, both in the preparation of market share reports and in distributing those reports among Telstra personnel. I also find that such information is Confidential Information of Optus for the purposes of the Access Agreement, or is otherwise subject to the requirements of confidentiality in cl 15 of the Access Agreement, by force of cl 10 of that agreement. I also find that neither such use of such information nor its disclosure for such purposes is permitted by the Access Agreement."

I guess the information here is probably too much in the 'telco land', but hopefully its clear enough to understand the gravity of this. I've known this type of stuff was being conducted by some telco's for a long time, but I'm shocked it was so brazen.

Knowing the big differences between what we (as Data Miners) are 'able to do' regarding insights and personal information (particularly in mobile telecommunications) and what we 'should do' is very important. Years ago the industry passed the early developmental stage of storing data, in recent years we have learned how to understand the data and convert it into useful insights. I still think that many data miners don't realise how important (now more than ever before) it is that we act responsibility in the use of the personal information we obtain from 'our' data.

1 comment:

Shane Butler said...

Thanks for positing this, I probably wouldn't have picked it up from over here otherwise (in the UK for a while). I guess the lesson is at an organisational level companies need to be aware of, and put appropriate controls in place for access to data. Also you are spot on about 'able to do' vs 'should do', and as data miners we need to be aware that it may not be intentional either... ie. that the models might pick up on the unethical triggers!