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Issue 20 Articles

ITU logo Privacy and Trust Issues Must
Stay High on the ICT Agenda

By Blaise Judja-Sato, Executive Manager, ITU Telecom

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Blaise Judja-Sato, Executive Manager, ITU Telecom
Blaise Judja-Sato,
Executive Manager, ITU Telecom

When I was growing up, I had a friend who was perennially embarrassed by his mother. She was a lovely woman, but she did have a habit of letting slip little details that would make my friend squirm with shame and embarrassment.

Fortunately for my friend, who’s well into middle age these days, his mother’s indiscretions are consigned to memory and only rarely rear their head as a playful jibe or tease between friends.

But imagine we’d been born into a different generation. All kinds of information that would previously only circulate among a small community of people is now being shared in a very public way. And worst of all, no one is really sure where the information is housed, who owns it or how it can be deleted – if at all.

I listened intently to a number of discussions at our most recent ITU Telecom World event in Dubai last October. There, speakers repeatedly raised issues of privacy and trust.

“Are we sharing too much information unnecessarily that may come back to haunt us in the future?” said Taha Kedro a speaker and Partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Personal pictures and jokes between friends are all shared online everyday. But prospective employers are increasingly using these same systems to carry out background checks. There’s a nagging awareness that our online persona is something we need to pay greater attention to, but how many of us are actually addressing this?

With the growth of identity theft, we are more aware of the need for care when sharing our personal information online – just look at the outrage and slew of articles in the press every time Facebook change their privacy settings. But much of the anger comes from the fact that the changes force us to be proactive and fiddle with our privacy settings, something we don’t like having to bother with.

We know that companies who provide online services for ‘free’ – like an email account, chat function or social media tools – are actually mining our online activities for saleable data. But for the most part we bury any concerns we might have as few of us would prefer to pay for those services in cash rather than accept the cookies they plant on our various devices.

Given the proliferation of sharing tools out there and our lack of control over who is custodian of this data, it’s very likely that many of us are posting ‘stuff’ online that we may come to regret ten years or more from now.

According to analysis of the 55+ discussions and panel debates that took place in Dubai, data ownership, rights and responsibilities remain unclear and largely unenforceable. The consensus among the ICT industry experts that attended our event, and which was highlighted in The Outcomes Report: An Industry in Transformation, was that absolute privacy or security will never exist.

(You can read the full report here:

For companies mining us for this personal information, the benefits of this situation are clear. Some studies suggest that targeted marketing can be two or three times more effective than traditional advertising, and they’re getting better at identifying our needs all the time.

So good, in fact, that targeting advertising can be disruptive and even intrusively personal.

One of our speakers told a very interesting story. It was about a man who had recently received a lot of targeted marketing for baby goods and products from a store he visited regularly.

But he didn’t have a baby.

So he went in the store to tell them, angrily, at their customer service desk. The staff apologized, took his number and said they’d look into it and call him back in a couple of days.

When the staff called to tell him they’d blocked the marketing material they were surprised to get an apology in return. It turned out that the customer had a teenage daughter living at home, who was newly pregnant. She’d been searching for baby information online before even telling her father the news of her pregnancy.

It’s not the ideal way to find out you’re about to become a grandfather. But if we don’t want companies having such insights into our lives and habits, what can we do?

According to The Outcomes, one answer lies with consumers who need to be educated and empowered to take personal responsibility for their own data and controlling what information is disclosed, and to whom.

We all need to be educated, and educate ourselves, about the image we present to the online world and its potential ramifications. There’s every chance that future generations will look at this current glut of data sharing and ask, like ITU Telecom World panellist Maxwell Thomas, CEO of The Cyber Guardian: “What were you all thinking?”

Though such affirmative action is a good start, and one we should all get to work on today (if you haven’t already) there also needs to be globally agreed frameworks of rights and responsibilities for both consumers and the companies using our data.

We need guidelines for best international online practice including clearly-worded and accessible privacy policies, transparency in data collection, storage and use. We also need the ability to enforce penalties for any breach of these codes.

One way forward may be to encourage a form of digital citizenship, where a culture of responsibility transfers offline values to the online world. Or even the creation of a bill of rights, stating principles that are universally accepted as the basis of a global framework of international jurisdiction.

Such ideas sound a long way off – and they are. But perhaps the tide is turning. Earlier this year the French government mooted a new data tax on companies who take our personal details and use them as a resource or commodity. The fact that such a tax was even suggested shows that governments are looking at these online transactions and starting to figure out how to formalize them.

While across the water in the UK, one of the country’s leading mobile operators, O2, has for just over a year been running trials to find ways to work with their customers to encourage them to be active custodians of their own data. The trials, aim is to give customers greater choice about how much of their data can be used and exploited.

Nonetheless, the privacy and trust debate surrounding our personal data will continue. And we hope to support that discussion at next year’s event in Bangkok. Our annual event will bring together the industry’s top thinkers and influencers for four days of exchange on the sector’s most pertinent issues.

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