Hidden from View: Mobile Money and the Policy Agenda

The past few weeks have seen plenty of ruminations about Uber’s potential invasions of privacy and the amount of data Google collects from its users. The concern is that these companies could use this data for nefarious purposes (although your definition of nefarious may vary). An Uber executive, for instance, suggested that the company could “dig up dirt” on journalists who wrote negative stories and hinted that they’ve already tracked the movements of at least a few reporters to date.

Felix Salmon writes that this is only the beginning of a wave of privacy scandals. What I found most remarkable in the various columns, threads, and postings is that I didn’t see a single mention of credit card companies or other financial institutions. The fact is that these companies know as much or more about most people than technology companies do. That’s often a good thing. Three times in the last six months I’ve discovered that my credit card providers know enough about me to intercept and deny fraudulent charges. American Express knew, for instance, that I wouldn’t spend a little over a thousand dollars on nutritional supplements, but I doubt Google would be able to figure that out. (After all, I did spend some time trolling through articles about Herbalife in the recent past.)

This intimate knowledge, and how people react to being reminded that some companies have it, infrequently comes up in discussions about mobile money and digital payments. If a large number of people are concerned about what Uber knows about them, how much more will they be concerned when they realize that their mobile phone company not only knows everyone they talk to and text, but everything they spend money on and the balances on all their accounts? At NextBillion, James Schintz of MIX calls for Safaricom to make it’s data available, but only cursorily notes that data should be anonymized to “protect consumer rights.” It’s not remotely that simple or easy to protect consumer privacy when you are dealing with the type of data that mobile communications and digital money enable.

The privacy agenda will be a major part of conversations about mobile money at some point—so all the more reason to start those conversations now. A useful example of the kind of deep discussion and debate that should be central to mobile money conversations is a new Brookings Institute paper by Jake Kendall of the Gates Foundation and several colleagues specifically on the topic of what data from mobile services should be private and what should be available for research. I hope we’ll see more explicit conversations about mobile money and privacy now rather than waiting until there are scandals and uproars that force that conversation into the open.