China's mobile network: a big brother surveillance tool for business ?  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

The ABC has a strange article on mobile phone surveillence, pointing the finger at China.

Serious concerns were raised at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos last week about the ability of the Chinese Government to spy on the country's 500 million mobile phone users. The head of China's biggest mobile phone company, which has more than 300 million subscribers, stunned delegates by revealing that the company had unlimited access to the personal data of its customers and handed it over to Chinese security officials when demanded.

The admission, described as "bone-chilling" by US Congressman Ed Markey, sent shivers through an audience of telecom experts at WEF who immediately saw the potential for misuse and surveillance. "We know who you are, but also where you are," said the CEO of China Mobile Communications Corporation, Wang Jianzhou, whose company adds six million new customers to its network each month and is already the biggest mobile group in the world by users.

He was explaining how the company could use the personal data of its customers to sell advertising and services to them based on knowledge of where they were and what they were doing. When pressed about the privacy and security implications of this, he added: "We can access the information and see where someone is, but we never give this information away ... only if the security authorities ask for it."

The movement of mobile phone users can be tracked because they connect to local base stations, giving a trail that can only be accessed in most democratic countries by security officials under strict conditions. Mobile phones can also be easily tapped.

Mr Markey, who is chairman of the US House of Representatives subcommittee on telecommunications, contrasted the situation with the checks and controls in place in the United States, where a court order is required for the government to check phone records. "I have my eyebrows arched so high they're hitting the ceiling," he told AFP after listening to Mr Wang. "I have many, many more questions about what the relationship is with the government and moreover how the company can use that information."

I'm not sure why anyone is surprised that mobile phone companies know who you are (in fact, they'd be in trouble if they didn't) and and where you are - or that they pass this information to governments - this has been true as long as mobile phones have been around.

I do like the way Congressman thinks its OK for security agencies in the West to be able to listen in and track anyone using their phone (even when it is against the law), but not to sell targeted advertising. I also wonder if location based marketers will have some of the same problems the FBI does ?

I think the location based marketing stuff could be taken a step forward - if rumours that mobile phones allow remote eavesdropping even when they are turned off are true (which might explain why people can get in trouble for not carrying their phone around), perhaps marketers could use this feature to extend the telemarketing concept to pestering people on the move.

For example, a person could be passing by a McDonalds, and a marketing surveillence bot could recognise that they have said "I'm hungry" in the last half an hour and haven't been into a restaurant, or anywhere else they could buy food, since.

Instantly it dispatches a job to a person in a call centre to call you this person up on their phone and suggest thay drop in to Macca's for something to eat. For business's with loyalty programs they could even give them hints on what their new balance would be or if they have any freebies to claim.

What a brave new world that would be - and we're risking the Chinese getting their first while we dawdle and quibble over who is allowed to perform mass surveillance and under what circumstances...

Moving on, I had a good laugh when I read the news that a "rogue trader" had somehow lost 5 billion Euros of French Bank Societe General's money - I know I'm a bit cynical but this is the most ridiculous story I've read in a long time. Everyone else is losing billions from the ARM / CDO / toxic debt fiasco, but these guys - they have a rogue trader. Sure.

Meanwhile, the LA Times reports that some homeowners now in a negative equity situation are walking away from their mortgages and telling their banks to foreclose on them. I was in Hong Kong at the height of their real estate boom in the 1990's and saw a few people do this after the bust. Hopefully both the lenders and the borrowers learn from their display of excessive greed and stupidity earlier this decade and we don't see a repeat of this foolishness for a generation or two.

More foolishness (of a rather more immoral and unpleasant nature) is going on in Iraq, with the decaying Bush administration trying to lock the Iraqi "government" into an agreement that allows the US military and their mercenaries to do as they please for the foreseeable future. Guess they still have some more persuading to do to get the locals to hand over the oil...

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