What to bin and what to keep; the big data conundrum

Figuring out what is valuable data and binning the rest has been a challenge for the telco industry, but here’s an interesting dilemma; how do you know the unknown value of data for the usecases of tomorrow?

This was broadly one of the topics of conversation at Light Reading’s Software Defined Operations & the Autonomous Network event in London. Everyone in the industry knows that data is going to be a big thing, but the influx of questions are almost overwhelming as the number of data sets available.

“90% of the data we collect is useless 90% of the time,” said Tom Griffin of Sevone.

This opens the floodgates of questions. Why do you want to collect certain data sets? How frequently are you going to collect the data? Where is it going to be stored? What are the regulatory requirements? How in-depth does the data need to be for the desired use? What do you do with the redundant data? Will it still be redundant in the future? What is the consequence of binning data which might become valuable in the future? How long do you keep information for with the hope it will one day become useful?

For all the promise of data analytics and artificial intelligence in the industry, the telcos have barely stepped off the starting block. For Griffin and John Clowers of Cisco, identifying the specific usecase is key. While this might sound very obvious, it’s amazing how many people are still floundering, but once this has been identified machine learning and artificial intelligence become critically important.

As Clowers pointed out, with ML and AI data can be analysed in near real-time as it is collected, assigned to the right storage environment (public, private or traditional dependent on regulatory requirements) and then onto the right data lakes or ponds (dependent on the purpose for collecting the data in the first place). With the right algorithms in place, the process of classifying and storing information can be automated, freeing up the time of the engineers to add value, though it also keeps an eye on costs. With the sheer volume of information being collected increasing very quickly, storage costs could rise rapidly.

And this is below the 5G and IoT trends have really kicked in. If telcos are struggling with the data demands of today, how are they going to cope with the tsunami of information which is almost guaranteed in tomorrow’s digital economy.

Which brings us back to the original point. If you have to be selective with the information which you keep, how do you know what information will be valuable for the usecases of tomorrow? And what will be the cost of not having this data?

Alibaba Cloud opened two data centres in London

The e-commerce giant Alibaba is challenging Amazon and Microsoft in cloud service by adding London to its global data centre map.

If anything can indicate that the world is still confident in the UK as a business hub, amidst all the confusions over deal or no deal of Brexit, new investment from Alibaba can certainly do. The cloud service division of the e-commerce giant, Alibaba Cloud, announced on Monday that it is opening two data centres in London.

“Our decision on the location is driven by the rapidly growing customer demand in the U.K. The United Kingdom is one of the fastest growing European markets for Alibaba Cloud,” said an Alibaba spokesperson. “We are also working with many global and local partners to make sure we are offering best-in-class technologies, services and consulting to customers.”

Among the services the data centres will provide include a so-called “elastic computing”, which is a dynamic system to manage traffic spikes in the network, as well as deliver application services and big data analytics. Alibaba Cloud’s UK clients come from sectors like retail, finance, media, education, research, and logistics, and include public companies like the software maker SDL and the B2B media and event company Ascential.

Cloud service has become a key battlefield for the webscale companies and are clearly delivering results for the market leaders. Over 60% of Amazon’s operating income was from AWS, its cloud service division, in the first half of 2018, while Azure has been the most stellar performer among all Microsoft products.

Meanwhile cloud services have also attracted unwelcome following. According to a report by PwC, “Red Apollo”, a hacking group based in China, launched a series of sustained cyber-attacks last year, specifically targeting cloud service providers. The logic goes that, if they could break the defence of a major cloud service, they would be able to spread spying tools and malware to all the companies on these outsourcing services.

London joins Frankfurt to form Alibaba Cloud’s network in Europe. By the time the new data centres are up and running the company will have 52 data centres sites in 19 regions for its cloud service.

The Children Act: US lawmakers asking to know how YouTube collects data on children

US Congressmen have demanded Google CEO answers questions on how YouTube tracks the data of minors.

Anyone who has been a parent to toddlers or pre-schoolers in the last dozen years must have felt, like it or not, YouTube has been a wonderful thing. It does not only provide occasional surrogate parenting but also delivers much genuine pleasure to the kids, from entertainment to education, with sheer silly laughter in between.

Meanwhile we have also recognised that YouTube can be a pain as much as a pleasure. The pre-roll and interstitial ads on such content are all clearly pushed at kids, in particular game and toy shopping; recommendations are based on what has been played therefore encouraging binge watching; not to mention the disturbing Peppa Pig or Micky Mouse spoof parodies that keep creeping through, a clear sign that, while you are watching YouTube, “YouTube is watching you”.

But neither the pleasure nor the pain should have been there in the first place, because, though not many of us have paid attention, “YouTube is not for children”, as the video service officially puts it. In its terms of service YouTube does require users to be 13 years and above. But, unlike Facebook, which would lock the user out unless he has an account, anyone can watch YouTube without the need of an account. An account is only needed when someone intends to upload a clip or make a comment. Even in situation like this, children can pretend to be above the age limit by inputting a faked date of birth, or simply by using someone else’s account. And YouTube has known that all along, it even teaches users how to make “family-friend videos”. Admit it or not, YouTube is for children.

Following complaints from 23 child and privacy advocacy groups to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), two congressmen, David Cicilline (D) of Rhode Island, and Jeff Fortenberry (R) of Nebraska, sent a letter to Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai on September 17, demanding information on YouTube’s practices related to collection and usage of data of underaged users. The lawmakers invoked the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act 1998 (COPPA), which forbids the collection, use or disclosure of children’s online data without explicit parental consent, and contrasted it with Google’s terms of service which give Google (and its subsidiaries) the permission to collect user data including geolocation, device ID, and phone number. The congressmen asked Google to address by October 17 eight questions, which are essentially related to:

  • What quantity and type of data YouTube has collected on children;
  • How YouTube determines if the user is a child, what safeguard measures are in place to prevent children from using the service;
  • How children’s content is tagged, and how this is used for targeted advertising;
  • How YouTube is positioning YouTube Kids, and why content for children is still retained on the main YouTube site after being ported to the Kids version

Google would not be the first one to fall foul of COPPA. In a recent high-profile case, FTC, which has the mandate to implement the law, fined the mobile advertising network inMobi close to $1 million for tracking users’, including children’s location information without consent.

This certainly is a headache that Google can do without. It has just been humiliated by the revelation that users’ location data was still being tracked after the feature had been turned off, not to mention the never-ending lawsuits in Europe and the US over its alleged anti-trust practices. It also, once again, highlights the privacy minefield the internet giants find themselves in.  Facebook is still being haunted by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, while Amazon’s staff were selling consumer data outright.

Nine years before COPPA came into force, an all-encompassing Children Act was passed in the UK in 1989. In one of its opening lines the Act states “the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration.” This line was later quoted by the author Ian McEwan in his novel, titled simply “The Children Act” (which was recently made into a film of the same title). In that spirit we laud the congressmen for taking the action again YouTube’s profiteering behaviours. To borrow from McEwan, sometimes children should be protected from their pleasure and from themselves.

Confusion reigns in China as Facebook is/isn’t granted access

For a brief moment in time, Facebook thought it had access to the fortunes of China. But now execs are heading back to the drawing board as its subsidiary’s registration has been removed.

After a decade of struggling to make any headway, there was a win. A company was registered in the city of Hangzhou according to a government filing, financed with an investment of $30 million and Facebook listed as the only shareholder. Unfortunately for Facebook, this registration was removed late Tuesday night, perhaps indicating the social media giant is back to square one.

The company registration should be viewed as nothing more than a minor win for Facebook. This was not permission for a fully-fledged launch in China, but it was a presence in the country. Facebook has confirmed it planned to create an innovation hub, similar to those which it has created in countries such as Brazil, to tap into the local market. But, it was a foot through the door, if only for the briefest of moments.

This licence would have allowed Facebook to access Chinese developers and consumers, though the launch of an app would have required more negotiations. Should Facebook have wanted to launch its full service, this would have been even more complicated. But this minor win meant CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his cronies were inside the tent, rubbing shoulders with the right people. The removal puts the social media giant back outside, crossing its legs.

Why the registration has been removed is anyone’s guess, but it does show the complications of trying to access one of the world’s most sought after prizes. To do business in China, you do it on its terms with no back chat. This might be a difficult pill to swallow for Silicon Valley companies which are used to calling the shots, but China has shown over the last decade how stubborn and resourceful it can be.

With the world’s largest population, a young and increasingly affluent middle-class and a hunger for the digital world, the Chinese population looks prime for the US giants of the internet economy. But with the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter being banned, the profits have instead gone to domestic brands. China has not bowed to the global infatuation with these companies, instead, used its promising society to fuel the growth of brands such as WeChat, Alibaba and Baidu. The Great Firewall of China has certainly brought riches for those who are lucky enough to be on the right side of it.

Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives have been trying to crack this enigma for years, but it seems they are not willing to accept the required concessions. A social media platform not under the direct influence of the government is not a position China wants to find itself in. It would be potentially empowering and destabilizing, a path the government does not want to walk. Some companies have accepted these conditions, LinkedIn is one example, though the majority have drawn a line in the sand.

It should be noted Facebook does do business in China. It sells advertising to Chinese brands looking to capitalise on the vast reach offered by the platform, but for Facebook to continue the exceptional growth investors have become accustomed to over the years, it needs access to the consumers as well. Expanding the user base is critical for the social media giant, and there have been signs in recent months it might be hitting a glass ceiling.

In the Western markets, some might argue there is limited room for additional users, while younger generations are starting to snub the platform in favour of brands such as SnapChat. The business can grow in some developing markets, though these are not the consumers which are deemed attractive to advertisers. To maintain profitability without the growing user base, Facebook would have to serve more ads to the user. This would be a downward spiral. As mentioned before, China has a growing, young, affluent, digital-savvy middle class. This is an audience advertisers would be interested in engaging.

The subsidiary’s registration was not going to ensure Facebook could launch its services in the country in the short-term, but it was certainly a step in the right direction. Despite the fact it has been seemingly revoked, it is still progress.

Brexit data contravention lands Facebook a £500,000 fine

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), UK’s data protection regulator, intends to fine Facebook half a million pounds for its failure to safeguard user data in the run-up to the country’s referendum to leave the EU in 2016.

After more than a year’s investigation, the ICO’s progress report published today (11 July) determined that Facebook breached Data Protection Act 1998 by lacking transparency “and security issues relating to the harvesting of data”. Facebook is due to present its case in front of the ICO later this month.

We asked Facebook for a comment and got this from Erin Egan, its Chief Privacy Officer: “As we have said before, we should have done more to investigate claims about Cambridge Analytica and take action in 2015. We have been working closely with the ICO in their investigation of Cambridge Analytica, just as we have with authorities in the US and other countries. We’re reviewing the report and will respond to the ICO soon.”

In addition to penalising Facebook with the highest possible sum in its jurisdiction, ICO has also undertaken actions against a string of parties suspected of having involved in irregularities during the campaign:

  • Enforcement Notice to cooperate with investigation was sent to SCL Elections, affiliated with Cambridge Analyica, and steps are being take to bring criminal charges against SCL Elections for its failure to implement the Enforcement Notice;
  • Warning letters were sent to 11 political parties on their ways of buying and using voter data. Audits are planned for later this year;
  • Enforcement Notice was sent to the Canadian data analytics firm AggregateIQ (AIQ) demanding it to stop possessing UK voters’ data, in cooperation with the Canadian authorities;
  • Investigation into both the Leave and Remain campaigns are ongoing;
  • An audit on Cambridge University’s policy and process will be conducted. A recommendation to Universities UK was issued demanding the education institutions to be more vigilant on the usage of personal data gathered for academic research purposes vs. academics’ private commercial interest.

In a certain sense, Facebook was fortunate with timing. Had the new GDPR been in place before the referendum, the ICO would have the authority to handout a ticket of up to €20 million (£17 million).

Nokia’s tour of China continues with China Mobile 5G AI partnership

Nokia has expanded its relationship with the world’s largest mobile operator China Mobile to jointly develop artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning capability on 5G.

It has been busy days at Nokia. One day after its collaboration with Tencent was announced, Nokia’s new R&D related MOU in China is focused on AI and machine learning in 5G environment, and this time the joint lab will be located in Hangzhou, east China. China Mobile will define use cases as well as standardise the open APIs for third party partners, while Nokia will develop and verify demo solutions using its 5G technologies including its Cloud RAN and open edge server.

China is aiming to lead the world’s AI industry. A national strategy for AI was developed in July 2017, which was followed by a working level conference at the end of year. A policy paper was published earlier this year, providing guidelines to industries and businesses on how to advance China’s AI capabilities in the years to come. As one of the largest state-owned enterprises (SOEs), China Mobile shoulders the expectations to lead the charge. Tying this R&D partnership with Nokia will help.

This is also a good move by Nokia, not the least because of the importance of market, and the level of investment expected out of China into AI and machine learning using the 5G technologies. What Nokia will take away from the partnership will potentially help enhance its capabilities when meeting other customers.

But here is the catch. Machines learn by being fed with large amount of data. However, no operators in the world, China Mobile included, can guarantee their data accurately reflect what is happening on the networks. The margin of errors varies, some operators’ data is up to 40 per cent off the mark, by their own admission. Which will seriously compromise the intelligence generated artificially.

US telcos back down from data sharing following Senator finger pointing

The very public investigations by Senator Ron Wyden of Oregan have seemingly forced US telcos to back out of location-sharing partnerships with data brokers as privacy policies of the world’s largest companies continues to be questioned.

The practice itself surrounds the selling of geo-location data from the telcos customers onto third parties, who in turn aggregate the data before reselling onto other organizations. While the concept of selling personal data, whether it is location, interests or professional information, is relatively common throughout the digital economy, the cloak and dagger means of conducting business here is starting to face greater levels of scrutiny.

The consumer facing platforms or businesses collecting the information in the first place have never been entirely honest with the user, meaning every revelation is treated as a scandal. As a result of the Senators investigation, Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile have all agreed to curb the practice (but not stop it), but, as is becoming common place, honesty and apologies only come after being caught. The level of deception is starting to become quite remarkable, and it does make you question what other skeletons are being hidden in the closet.

“After my investigation and follow-up reports revealed that middlemen are selling Americans’ location to the highest bidder without their consent, or making it available on insecure web portals, Verizon did the responsible thing and promptly announced it was cutting these companies off,” said Wyden. “In contrast, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint seem content to continue to sell their customers’ private information to these shady middle men, Americans’ privacy be damned.”

While this might seem like a victory for the Senator, it should be worth noting the telcos have provided suitable wiggle room to continue selling the data. The dodgy brokers in question look to have been barred from working with the telcos, but this is by no means the end of the story, it is after all an opportunity to make money; no principle is too great or sacred to trump the potential of making money.

Verizon has stated it would continue to sell data to companies that would use it in-house, highlighting fraud detection or customer identification as examples (it is doing it to help the user after all), Sprint highlighted the good work it has done as well, while AT&T has said it believes there are no other example of unauthorized use of customer data. In its response to the Senator, T-Mobile said:

“The program provides our customers with valuable location-based services. Although the program is relatively small, it delivers numerous societal and consumer benefits, including through services like roadside assistance, medical emergency alert services, and bank fraud prevention. Because other national carriers provide similar programs, these valuable services are available to the vast majority of U.S. mobile wireless consumers.”

T-Mobile also confirmed it would tighten up the procedures to make sure the data is being used ethically, responsibly and legally, however the messages all seem to be the same; we’re not doing this to make money for ourselves, it is for the benefit of the consumer.

Privacy is a big question being asked by both consumers and politicians right now, and it would not surprise us if this is just the tip of the iceberg. Several companies have been caught out for bad practice or misleading practices, but we suspect there might be a bigger scandal out there, hiding in the dark corners of the web.

We’re blindly walking the path to digital monopolization – think tank

British think tank ResPublica has claimed current competition law is not fit for purpose, and runs the risk of companies such as Google and Facebook creating digital monopolies and ultimately a losing position for the consumer.

In its latest report on the industry, ‘Technopoly and what to do about it: Reform, Redress and Regulation’, the think tank argues competition law needs to stop privileging big business and focus on the benefits of small businesses and market structure. The team is pointing towards the ‘kill in the crib’ emerging trends, with the super-powers of tomorrow acquiring any business which is deemed a potential threat in the long-run. Of course this is standard business practise, but without a more stringent view on what should and shouldn’t be allowed, acquisitions could lead to the death of competition.

“Digitalisation and the new world of Big Data are already conferring vast benefits… Not such good news are the new threats that digitisation poses to competition and the weakened capacity of insurgents to be lode-bearers of the new,” the think tank warned. “Investment in patents, copyrights and computerised systems has become a new form of intellectual capitalism.

“The company that gains first mover advantage (with the creation of the fastest growing network of digital users) is the company on the way to establishing a monopoly position, which can be further entrenched – as monopolies have always been – by buttressing that position through making its services as distinctive and non-reproducible as possible. If unconstrained by competitive alternatives, there is a danger that these companies can eliminate all potential competition through acquisition strategies.”

This is of course not a new argument, but we are starting to see the negative benefits of such dominance. Revenues are only widening, meaning the predatory nature of the major players will continue to increase as well as the vast amount of cash being thrown into R&D departments. We don’t think the argument of ‘they’ll be more innovative because they have more money’ offers much credibility, Facebook and Google are entitled to spend the billions however they please, but such a strangle hold on the consumer means more than reduced competition; it means less variety.

Such a dominance over revenues will mean a less stable business for the traditional media players, some of which are already facing the threat of extinction. The social media giants have already stated they do not wish to have editorial control over the news content on the platforms, though they will continue to fight fake news, threatening the ability for the general public to remain informed.

“The ‘Fantastic Four’ (Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple) are now widely recognised to be dominating the technology sector and controlling the media,” the report states. “They have wrapped the planet with their platforms and inhabit all, or almost all offices, schools and homes. Their impact on communication is pervasive and the consequences for freedom of expression and press freedom is only now becoming clear.”

The main threat for ResPublica seems to be the suitability of current legislation. This is of course not the first time the readiness of the red-tape maze has been questioned, but it certainly is worth continuing to ask the question until it is answered. There does seem to be a lot of busywork taking place, but few governments or bureaucratic bodies seem capable of tackling the internet giants in the complicated, and often unruly, digital landscape.

“This is an exciting time in the sector, as companies seek to exploit the potential of AI, which could double economic growth rates in industrialised countries like ours – But the dominance of the current behemoths puts this at risk,” the report states.

“By tolerating anti-competitive strategies, failure to penalise bad behaviour and make law breakers pay, we are damaging innovation. This is why we propose a pan European approach to dealing with the sector, support for small and medium size enterprises to gain market entry and the use of the states’ purchasing power to ensure greater choice and diversity.”

Beware the AI snake oil salesman

Artificial intelligence has taken over as buzzword of the year so few should be surprised it is being thrown around like a ragdoll, but does selling AI actually mean anything?

This is a question which was posed at 5G World. Can you actually sell artificial intelligence and the glorious benefits promised in the digital era? Is there any substance to the ‘intelligence’ features which are being promised by the plethora of technology companies littering the digital economy?

Following his presentation focusing on automation and building intelligence into network architecture, Huawei’s Peter Zhou was asked whether it is actually possible to sell artificial intelligence as a product. It seems to be entwined with every product Huawei is bringing to the market, but what does it actually mean?

This is the problem which many telcos or enterprise customers are facing now. Every company is now selling AI, such is the excitement around the technology, but as it was pointed out in the session AI means nothing without data. The data is the power, and the data comes from the customers own business.

Artificial General Intelligence is a term which is starting to become more popular, and is perhaps more accurate when looking at the ‘intelligent’ solutions which are being paraded around the industry. When looking assessing an AI ‘product’ to enhance operations, customers should always remember such a thing does not really exist. The value of AI comes in time, when it is suitably trained to the specific use case and environment. As every company is different, with a different approach to business and different needs, AI will be very different in every application. It has the potential to be a very powerful tool, but the benefit comes from graft, not buying a product.

Perhaps this is an obvious statement when read, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded every now and then of the obvious. Especially when such glorious promises are being made by enthusiastic and convincing salesman.