AFTER SMS RATE CUT, NTC SHOULD ASK TELCOS WHAT THEY DO ABOUT CELLPHONE USERS’ CONTEXT DATA

CURRENT INNOVATION CONCERNS
Elpidio V. Peria
10 May 2014

After being stuck in the regulatory process for some time, it’s good the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) recently affirmed an October 2011 order, as reported in Business World this past week, that calls for a rate cut for text messages or short-message services (SMS) of telecommunications companies or telcos. These companies, namely, Smart Communications, Inc., Digital Mobile Philippines, Inc. (Digitel) and Globe Telecom, Inc. did not yet comment on the order but they may be mulling over their next actions, whether to comply with the order or contest it all the way to the Supreme Court. After this, the NTC should next inquire what these companies do about celllphone users’ context data.

What is context data and what does it have to do with cellphone users and the telcos?

Context data is also called metadata, brought into public consciousness by Edward Snowden’s disclosure about the massive surveillance effort of the US govt’s National Security Agency (NSA). It is information not about the content of the calls being made in the cellphones but about the other facts related to the call. Cornell University’s Prof. Stephen B. Wicker (2011) said that, in a cellular telephone call, context data includes the number the caller dials, the number from which the caller dials, the location of the caller, the time of the call, and its duration.

According to Prof. Wicker (2011), having in mind the situation in the US, courts and legislatures have been far less protective of context information than content. The basic rationale is that the user understands context information is needed to complete the communication process, and that in using the technology, context information is freely given to the network. It follows that, according to the courts, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in this information, and the Fourth Amendment ( a US constitutional mandate prohibiting unreasonable searches and seizures) is not implicated.

In the Philippine setting, considering there appears to be no case involving this matter, this is an open question awaiting the right case and circumstance, but considering that this type of data appears to be routinely collected by telecommunications companies for them to provide their services, it’s about time the NTC, on its own, motu propio or perhaps by a civil liberties group, should raise this as an issue so that this matter is brought out into the open and debated by the Filipino public.

Going back to our earlier query on the relation of context data to cellphones and their use, we have again Prof. Stephen Wicker (2011), who traced the path of an incoming call to illustrate how personal data is collected and used :

 We now consider an incoming call. To complete an incoming call to a cellular phone,      the network routes the call to a mobile switching center (MSC) that is near the phone. Through a process called paging, the MSC then causes the called cellular phone to ring. When the cellular user answers his or her phone, the MSC completes the call and communication can commence.

In order to perform this routing and paging process, the network must keep track of the location of the cellular telephone. This is done through the registration process. All cellular telephones that are powered on periodically transmit registration messages that are received by one or more nearby cell towers and then processed by the network. The resulting location information thus acquired is stored with varying levels of granularity in several databases. The databases of interest to us here are the Home Location Register (HLR) and the Visitor Location Register (VLR).

The HLR is a centralized database that contains a variety of subscriber information, including a relatively coarse estimate of the subscriber’s current location. HLRs are generally quite large; there need be only one per cellular network. VLRs, generally associated with local switches, contain local registration data, including the identity of the cell site through which registration messages are received. There is typically one VLR per mobile switching center (MSC) or equivalent.

The VLR stores the identification number for the cell site through which the registration message was received. The identity of the MSC associated with the VLR is forwarded to the Home Location Register (HLR) that maintains the records for the registering platform. We can now track the progress of an incoming call in more detail. Calls from outside the cellular network will generally enter the network through a gateway MSC. The gateway MSC will use the called number to identify and query the appropriate HLR to determine how to route the call. The call is then forwarded to the MSC associated with the last registration message, which in turn queries the VLR to determine in which location area to attempt to contact the subscriber. The base station controller associated with the location area then causes a paging message to be sent to the called cellular telephone, causing it to ring. If the subscriber answers the call, the MSC connects a pair of voice channels (to and from the cellular platform), and completes call setup. The HLR and VLRs (or equivalents) are thus the sources of the historic and prospective cell site data.

This lengthy citation was made out in full so that no technical detail is missed, but to those who may have been lost already in the opening paragraphs of the quote, the point Prof. Wicker is making is that, in order to provide us the cellphone service that we need in our day-to-day lives and work, personal context data is routinely or regularly collected by the telcos, and while it appears that there seems to be no fuss about it, there are serious privacy concerns here, like what do the telcos do about these context data and shouldn’t the regular cellphone user have to be notified what is being done about their context data?

Prof. Wicker (2012) also mentions that with the advent of smartphones, there is greater capability for more “fine-grain location resolution”, which also gives rise to location-based services such as maps and other notifications of nearby shops of interest to the smartphone user and this “fine-grain location information can be used to determine a great deal about an individual’s beliefs, preferences and behavior. Databases containing such information pose a threat to individual security and privacy, as they can be a focus for hackers with criminal intent. On a less-malevolent note, such data is immensely valuable to direct-marketing firms. Entire businesses are built around the compilation of such information acquired through other means.”

Prof. Wicker (2012) further states that location-based services gives rise to location-based advertising (LBA), which has the potential for substantially exerting more power over individual behavior than previous modes of advertising. Prof. Wicker explains:

LBA attempts to shift intentionality, diverting consciousness from an experience of the immediate surroundings to the consumption of advertised goods. In Heideggerian terms, LBA interferes directly with the individual’s project of crafting an authentic existence.

Consider the following situation, developed in two stages : A family is seated at their dining room table enjoying dinner together, but there is an exception, the father- a relentless worker, is reading texts and email messages instead of joining the conversation, One could say he is no longer present. He has left the place. Or to turn it around, as far as the father is concerned, the dinner table is no longer a “place” with familial meaning but a location for eating. Now, to complete the example, assume that someone who wants to communicate with the father from afar know when he is at the table and chooses that time to send texts. The texter now has the ability to disrupt the father’s relationship with the family dinner, a relationship often filled with strong, even defining, sense of meaning.

The dinner table is a natural example for the author.but one might consider a walk through one’s hometown, visiting an old high school or attending a play. LBA has the potential to detract from the experience of these familiar and meaning-filled locations.One’s surroundings may thus lose their “placeness”through LBA, including their meaning,and become merely a path to be traversed. As places become locations, meaning is lost to the individual. That is, we lose some of ourselves, as well as one of the critical processes through which we become a self.

While this discourse into the consequences of location privacy may be something that to others may sound too sentimental which may not actually result to any serious actionable injury that can be addressed by the courts, this is worth a serious discussion in the open, so that the general Filipino public themselves will assess whether these concerns, given our existing laws on data privacy (Data Privacy Act, Republic Act 10173) or the remedy provided by Supreme Court rules (WRIT of HABEAS DATA), are either overblown, or should be worth a serious consideration for action by the NTC.

OoO

REFERENCES CITED:

Stephen B. Wicker (2011), Cellular Telephony and the Question of Privacy, Communications of the ACM,
July 2011, vol. 54, no. 7, from http://wisl.ece.cornell.edu/wicker/SWicker_ACM_cellular.pdf, accessed 14 April 2014

Stephen B. Wicker (2012), The Loss of Location Privacy in the Cellular Age, Communications of the ACM,
August 2012, vol. 55, no. 8, from http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2012/8/153795-the-loss-of-location-privacy-in-the-cellular-age/abstract, accessed 16 April 2014

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