Privacy Fears Affect Product Strategies

Google quietly shut down its Mobile Network Insights service

This past spring, Google rather quietly pulled the plug on its Mobile Network Insights service because of concerns that sharing data might invite scrutiny from users and regulators. Its parent company Alphabet decided to axe the programme in April 2019, but it was only this week that Reuters revealed details.

Google’s Mobile Network Insights service, launched in March 2017, gave wireless operators information about signal strength and connection speeds collected from smartphones and tablets running the Android operating system. The sheer number of Android devices used worldwide made this an incredibly valuable source of information for the industry. Although operators have their own tools that gather similar information, Google’s service brought useful additional insights. Google didn’t charge operators for the data, which provided some metrics that could be used to assist in network planning. The company has a vested interest in keeping users well connected.

Much of the decision to shut down the service was about perception and avoiding scrutiny. Google designed the Mobile Network Insights service with an eye toward user privacy. The system only collected data from users who opted in to share information with Google, such as location history and diagnostics. The company says that all data was aggregated before being delivered to operators, meaning that it was anonymized. But it could be argued that most users don’t read the fine print in electronic agreements and don’t know that the data is being collected and shared with third parties, or what it’s being used for.

The use of location data, in particular, has been a sensitive topic recently after it was reported that US networks were sharing real-time location data with other companies. Google was also embroiled in its own location data controversy, when it emerged that the company still tracks users even when they turn off the location history feature on their devices.

Business models are increasingly revolving around extremely advanced customer relationship management systems, which rely on the collection and analysis of data to understand consumer behaviour and microtarget them with products and services. Now, challenges in data collection are mounting as consumers and regulators weigh the benefits of sacrificing privacy.

Detail from the announcement is vague, but it looks as though Google was taking the right steps to preserve users’ privacy, while offering a useful service to network operators. The announcement focusses on Google’s decision not to share the data with network operators any longer, motivated mainly by concerns about attracting attention from regulators. Interestingly, Google hasn’t said that it will stop collecting the data for its own use.

It’s also interesting that Facebook runs a similar service for telecom operators, known as Actionable Insights. One part of this provides useful information about the quality of connection that users experience. But the service goes somewhat further. The second element, Market Insights, is understood to provide data from the Facebook app, Instagram and WhatsApp combined, covering demographics, interests, use of video, devices used, location history and quality of connections for segments of the population. Market Insights aims to help operators “make better business decisions”, including how to target their advertising on Facebook. The social media giant also anonymizes the data, and emphasizes that the data its service shares doesn’t extend beyond what Facebook already collects anyway.

However, there are clear concerns about these services: users don’t know that their data is being shared like this, and anonymized data is easier to individuate with a richer data set. There are also specific concerns that Facebook is using the service transactionally, offering the data to telecom operators for free in return for larger spending on advertising.

If Google was worried about its service inviting scrutiny from regulators, Facebook may well get more attention from the authorities.