Transmitters on telecommunication tower showing how privacy is a key concern for mobile carriers when handling telco data

Uncovering the Value of Carrier-Based Intelligence for a Privacy-First World

With the rise of commoditized big data solutions over the past decade, enterprises and independent software vendors have enjoyed a boom in data and data services. Today, a robust data ecosystem has emerged in which data supply from one industry vertical can be transformed and cast into useful intelligence for other, unrelated industry verticals.

The FCC fines levied against mobile carriers for failing to make reasonable efforts to monitor third-party data handlers that had access to customers’ sensitive personal information has created a flurry of conversations on what crosses the line on consumer privacy. However, there is a lot to consider when assessing usage of carrier data – from the underlying consumer policies for providing consent and transparency, to the type of data being used, and the processes to transform that data.

This piece will delve into understanding of the characteristics of the underlying data resource, how that data is transformed into useful intelligence, and how these processes are carried out with the upmost care to represent the interests of consumers.

From data to intelligence

Data challenges are routinely cited as the primary reason why 87% of data science projects fail to even make it into production. The typical data science team is overwhelmed by admin heavy tasks associated with converting data into usable intelligence entities.

The traditional DIKW pyramid still holds value to anyone familiar with data. The most unique and untapped data sources are by definition the most difficult sources to stimulate. While web and mobile app data is ubiquitous, the ability to combine data sources, identify truly compelling insights and transform those insights into wisdom and actionable takeaways requires iterative, applied data science in cooperation with expert industry resources.

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Increasingly, only the largest tech companies have access to the infrastructure, tools, and skills to process and transform raw data signals into ready-to-use intelligence – or have large enough first-party databases – or both (e.g., the walled gardens of Facebook, Google, Amazon).

Most enterprises don’t have the resources to manage an enterprise data lake, ingesting and sanitizing multiple data feeds, ultimately producing intelligence applicable to their business need.  Indeed, this seems like an awfully high bar to set for an enterprise that simply wants to find the right answers their business questions.  Enterprises that have embarked on their data enablement journeys in the 2010s have learned the lesson that where they once thought they “need the data,” they now know they really “need the answers.”

Additionally, regardless of the industry vertical, patterns have emerged with respect to the types of questions asked (and the answers provided) by these intelligence sets  For instance, interests in the retail and commercial real-estate industries each have similar motives in the analysis of routes travelled in relation to relevant points of interest (POI).  In retail, the interest is in analyzing observed dimensioned traffic in and around storefronts to drive consumer insights.  Likewise, both the buy-side and sell-side in commercial real estate want to see the same information relative to a given set of properties as a form of location insight.

It makes business sense to normalize and simplify the analysis of this intelligence into a common function, or set of related functions, and expose these through a lightweight API or equivalent.  Creating a unified view of accurate consumer intelligence derived from the privacy-first processing of signals from wireless carriers, OEMs, and mobile apps epitomizes the heart of this value proposition.  In the end the goal is to produce a privacy-first holistic intelligence set across both physical and digital dimensions.

The value of privacy-first intelligence from telco signal data

Consider the traditional wireless telco operation – the macro network generates hundreds of terabytes of signal data every day. Mobile devices are constantly radiating when they are performing a teleservice or data operation. Idle mobile device radios will also “pilot” so that base stations know where devices are and can arbitrate amongst themselves on how to best complete an inbound call to the device. These radio events are logged at each base station, which maintain synchronized clocks. The telco has metadata describing the base stations, including tower height, number of antennas and their orientations, beam width and azimuth. From these inputs, high volumes of multi-lateraled location scores can be computed with varying degrees of precision, often 100m to 300m. It’s not uncommon to see a macro network produce an average of 600 of these network-sourced location (NSL) scores per subscriber-day.

Additionally, as wireless devices interact with internet services, summary events of these interactions are logged within the network. The majority of these events occur over a secure transport, but even these will include a timestamp, source and destination addresses and ports, and numbers of bytes exchanged. In cases where clear protocols are in use, headers and request/response details may also be logged. These packet layer data (PLD) records represent another high-volume, high-velocity signal data source representing subscriber behavior.

When combined with demographic and behavioral characteristics gleaned from billing, CRM and marketing database systems, a very rich and entirely unique panel of data emerges. This data is differentiated from other app and device centric sources by the breadth of the signal – the combination of physical, digital, and demographic dimensions – and the frequency of the signals collected.

But there are challenges to realizing value from this data. As with any raw signal source, intelligent analysis must be conducted in order to produce usable data by-products and intelligence that can bring actual applied value.

But first and foremost, the privacy interests of the subscriber must be represented, and subscriber choice must be applied in any data processing workflow.

Privacy is key

It goes without saying, the application of consumer data in any principle requires a great deal of trust from all parties involved. Carriers have historically offered a set of APIs which were developed to allow access to a device for services based on real time location (such as roadside rescue, parental controls, and fraud prevention).

These API services are exposed to authorized 3rd parties, for approved use cases, and trackable consumer consent. Over the years these services have been extremely valuable to consumers. However, there were incidents where a few of the 3rd parties ‘resold’ their API access for non-approved use cases, without acquiring consumer consent. Unfortunately, this is not always the case as businesses often implement processes that make consumer control confusing, or at best an intentional obstruction as a measure of “check the box” opt-in. It is unfortunate that in an ever-growing ecosystem where there is paramount focus on data privacy that businesses will jeopardize consumer trust to gain value from customer data

To gain consumer adoption and respect, companies should provide them with tangible control over the information they share, respect data privacy selections, offer ease in understanding and protection as to personal information moving forward. In fact, recent research on consumer privacy issues, legislation, and best practices at firms around the world concludes that the successfully handling of client data comes down to “The 3 Ts” – trust, transparency, and type of data.

What would meeting the standards of trust and transparency with respect to telco signal and mobile data look like? First, it is critical to ensure that all consumer data has appropriate consent from the consumer, or data subject. This means that users should be provided choice and transparency with opportunities to:

  • Electively determine how their data are and are not used
  • Check and change their elections at various points in time and through multiple convenient touchpoints
  • Operate with the understanding that they are never opted in for third party marketing by default.

The subscriber election state must then be combined with internal telco policies to compile an exclusion list which is used to completely remove signal from data processing workflows.  This ensures that any signal that should not be processed (e.g. that of government subscribers, corporate liable subscribers and individually liable opt-outs) is removed at the source, all within the enterprise telco boundary.

While the telco data has now been filtered for exclusion, it is still critical to further remove any personally identifiable information, and just as importantly, to anonymize the remaining data. The most robust platforms will implement further anonymization of post-processed and filtered mobile and telco data to ensure users can never be re-identified.

Third parties are found to be reselling their mobile carriers’ API access to consumer data for non-approved use cases. #privacy #respectdataClick to Tweet

Thus, the “3 Ts of handling data” need to be rigorously upheld throughout the entire process –  from facilitating subscriber election through data collection, filtering, and anonymization, all the way through the derivation of intelligence. Using telco signal data requires more than a commitment to adhering to industry requirements, but also requires proactively instituting practices that empower users while constantly adapting to new security and privacy practices.


In today’s climate, privacy is a key concern for all companies with high value data assets, especially mobile carriers. By combining AI to create higher value intelligence entities and using a systemic framework that enforces only anonymized and filtered data are employed, organizations can focus on the problems they want to solve through the application of trusted intelligence.