By David Reed, founder of The Data Governance Forum
If UK government plans get approved, telcos will have to start keeping call, text, browsing and instant messaging envelope data for 12 months.
The goal is to support policing and national security by making it easier to follow the trail of suspects and map their connections.
European governments are likely to watch the debate with interest and, if successful, it is highly likely they would choose to follow suit.
Given traffic data is usually deleted once it has been processed for billing, changes in retention requirements will mean new data storage and analytical capabilities being implemented.
The good news is that the government has said it will write a blank cheque to enable this data storage, so telcos will not be facing an additional hit on their IT budgets.
If new data sets do have to be retained, it is only natural to wonder whether they could actually provide the basis for fresh customer insight and business opportunities.
After all, the more a telco knows about its subscribers, the better equipped it will be to develop new services.
Existing customer intelligence centres at major operators already work hard crunching data for exactly this purpose – the more data going into such analysis and modelling, the more accurate any predictions and models that emerge.
That has long been the basis for arguing for more investment into data management and data governance.
Targets are often attached to budget requests to build new customer databases, hire expert analysts and deploy their outputs into operating systems – from next best action prompts in the call centre to offering targeted ads to brands based on inferred preferences.
But with the government’s promise to foot the bill, the hard part of the argument has already been won.
Building an analytical team to work on the data is relatively low cost compared to the incremental gains that are likely to result.
A precedent already exists in the financial services sector.
Following the problems of the banking sector, the UK Financial Services Compensation Scheme mandated that any deposit taker based in Britain had to build a single customer view (SCV) which provided a net figure of the exposure faced by the FSCS in the event of that bank collapsing.
Many took the opportunity to leverage the SCV for its insight into customer potential and risk.
So should telcos actively support the current proposals on the basis that they might gain a significantly enhanced view of their own subscribers?
This is where the possibilities of data analysis collide with the strictures of data governance.
Customers are generally comfortable with having their call, text and email traffic data reviewed.
However, when it comes to browsing history - and especially instant messaging - there is very strong resistance.
Further, it may not be legal to track beyond the “first slash” without intruding on the website publisher’s domain, thereby contravening the Interception of Communications Act.
Tensions within the UK’s coalition government and civil liberties arguments may also put paid to the proposals before it happens.
Even so, all telcos should consider the potential value of envelope data as part of their information strategy and review its legal status.
The government’s offer to fund retention of this data may look like a no brainer, but it demands very close scrutiny.