iPhone, smartphones and the PRISM planet

June 12, 2013 9:18 AM EDT

Apple [AAPL] leads the march into a future in which your mobile devices become central to your real as well as your digital life, but the recent revelation that Verizon hands over huge amounts of customer data to the PRISM-wielding NSA has severe implications for the evolution of a Post-PC mobile future. These implications should be of huge importance to anybody on any mobile platform, and they connect directly to the changing ways in which carriers are managing their networks. If you use a smartphone, you need to know about these things.

[ABOVE: "Today we celebrate the first glorious anniversary of the Information Purification Directives."]

PRISM planet

In case you've missed all these revelations on account of your huge excitement at Apple's introduction of the all-new iOS 7, PRISM is a US NSA surveillance system that intrudes into the privacy of -- seemingly -- the entire connected global population. .

You can read about it here, and, as Wired puts it: "The government is secretly collecting the telephone records of millions of Verizon customers and gathering data from tech companies including Apple, Microsoft and Google."

PRISM is front page news across the planet as people everywhere consider if the NSA can truly be trusted with the recently-disclosed level of access it enjoys into their digital lives. Meanwhile the Obama administration is considering a criminal investigation into the leaks.

There are some huge implications to Verizon's sharing of mobile phone records with the NSA/PRISM. These implications may not be obvious to anyone who doesn't know what Policy Control means.

Policy Control

In brief, Policy Control is something carriers do on their networks. Originally this consisted of systems that watched out for people using too much data and attempted to police unauthorised uses of mobile networks.

That was Policy 1.0, fine for EDGE and 3G networks, but as LTE/4G infrastructure is deployed internationally, the nature of Policy Control is changing: carriers are now moving to deploy Policy Control for real time analysis of customer habits on networks in order to offer new products and services. They are driven to do this by the steady decline of revenues from voice and SMS calls.

What some may miss is the implication of "real time analysis of customer habits." LTE networks are intelligent. These Policy servers can pick up a huge host of knowledge about what a smartphone user is doing -- knowledge that's way beyond just how much data you are using. Policy gives carriers insight into:

  • Where customers are
  • What they are doing on their smartphone
  • What websites they are visiting
  • Who they are communicating with
  • What social networks they might be accessing
  • What music you listen to
  • Where you shop

As mobile evolution continues, you'll see the things your smartphones can do evolve to include such things as mobile payments, driving directions, voice search and control and, at some indeterminate point, you'll see the smartphone used to control all manner of home and business-focused connected intelligent systems (from intruder alarms to televisions, from cars to agricultural equipment).

[ABOVE: PRISM whistleblower's last words, he's reportedly 'gone to ground' at this point.]

Connect the dots

This means your network will be aware of what you are doing whenever it is employed in any of your smartphone's functions. Given the increasingly connected nature of everything in the world, this means your carrier records will carry traces -- perhaps inexact traces -- of everything you interact with. And what you interact with will continue to grow.

Policy servers are increasingly monitoring many of these functions. The carriers already want to control your bandwidth use; but they are also putting huge effort into finding out what you do with your device in order that they can figure out new services to offer you.

(The most popular industry example of how this might be manifested follows: You might receive a text which asks: "Hi, we see you are watching a lot of movies on Netflix, for an extra $2.99 we can give you a Netflix package which guarantees you lightning fast speeds when using the service.")

In future Policy Servers won't just exist remotely, but will be active on the device itself (that's a couple of years down the line).

Your digital life is your real life

What I'm saying is that almost everything you do in your digital life (which is increasingly also your real physical life) will leave some traces on your carrier's Policy Server, which presumably also becomes customer related data. I cannot say with any certainty just how deep that data is, but it will certainly be of sufficient integrity carriers can at least identify what you are doing and what kind of services you use.

Still, it's a lot of data. Surely that's too much data to actually be, you know, useful? Not so. The drive to develop Big Data solutions means technologists are assembling solutions capable of delving through all this data in real time to deliver accurate results of what is happening on the network.

This suggests the networks are generating huge amounts of customer data, and this data is inherently capable of telling those who look at it a huge amount concerning a customer's device usage and personal habits. You like checking Facebook at 9am? So do a million other users. While that information is intended to help carriers identify what's going on on their network and perhaps to develop a Facebook package, the other thing it can achieve is tell carriers what time you go on the service.

I'm not saying this is a completely bad thing. The notion that carriers and device manufacturers will be able to become more responsive to what customers want and need is a big positive for happy user experiences. The continued evolution of mobile technology is also a likely improvement for the way we live our lives. To a certain extent there's often a need to swap a little privacy for a little convenience.

How deep does PRISM go?

However, my concern mainly reflects Verizon's decision to share its customer data with NSA, which in tandem with PRISM suggests many customers may have seen their personal privacy even more deeply probed than they even thought possible. After all -- carriers already collect far more data about your use of their network than many people might recognize.

As the mobile future becomes the mobile present, it seems to me that US consumers (this should extend to consumers across the planet) should begin to demand a bill of digital rights with which to protect their privacy, because the ability of Policy management to deliver granular analysis of any individual's digital life is only going to improve.

I also think those in governments interested in understanding the full potential of technology to watch the global population may be advised to take a look at the nature of Policy 2.0 and the future of the world's mobile networks.

Those in favour of surveillance will see this as a huge advantage to boost their insight on the population; while those who stand against the erosion of privacy may want to begin to develop legal instruments with which to protect that population.

And, of course, Policy 2.0 is not about Apple, Android or BlackBerry. It's non device-specific and will eventually touch everyone who uses a mobile device.

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