How Telenor, A Mobile Carrier In Asia, Is Beating Google At The Data Game : All Tech Considered When terrorists killed nearly 150 at a high school in Pakistan, the government asked mobile carriers to fingerprint every SIM card owner. Soon, one firm realized its power to collect customer data.

After Terrorist Attack, A Phone Company Is Beating Google At Big Data

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For years, cell phone companies around the world have complained about Facebook and Google. That's because the tech giants offer free voice calling and messaging apps that you can use on your cell phones, eating into profits and grabbing customers' data. One operator recently realized that if you can't beat them, join them. NPR's Aarti Shahani has the story.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: The realization came in an unusual, even troubling way. It wasn't a white paper from McKinsey consultants. It was a terrorist attack.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking in foreign language).

SHAHANI: You might remember seeing the news footage in Northern Pakistan. Michael Foley lives there with his wife and the daughters.

MICHAEL FOLEY: On December 16, 2014, there was a horrendous event in Peshawar where there was a school attacked by very bad people, and they killed over a hundred young students.

SHAHANI: The government faced a big problem and also an embarrassing one.

FOLEY: They were not able to really identify who was actually the people who were owning the phones and getting instructions while they were in the middle of the attack.

SHAHANI: In the U.S., the FBI can't crack open the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters. In Pakistan, law enforcement had a hard time figuring out who even bought the phones. For years, they'd talked about this problem of not really knowing who owns each SIM card, the tiny card you insert into your phone in much of the world to get an Internet connection. And for a long time, they talked to Foley about how to fix it. He's the CEO of a leading SIM card seller, Telenor Pakistan.

FOLEY: The only thing that happened after the 16th of December was a very strong political and social will to get this thing done and sorted once and for all.

SHAHANI: Which is not a small thing. Citizens are going into Telenor stores every day or every other day to reload their cards, so the company and the government devised a plan to get store clerks to fingerprint every customer and put those prints into an existing national database. Foley says it was very expensive

FOLEY: We actually stopped selling SIMs to get this over with as soon as possible. If we had meshed both activities, it would have taken 12 to 15 months to do it.

SHAHANI: Instead it took them about 4 months, and he estimates they registered 50 to 60 million people. A fingerprint drive by a mobile carrier - the equivalent of an AT&T or a Verizon - it was the first of its kind in the whole world. And while it cost the business, in the end, that drive was a gift of sorts.

FOLEY: What that did is provide a real close link - a very, very solid link between the owner of the SIM card and their identity.

SHAHANI: It's the kind of like between digital person and physical person that not even Google has.


SHAHANI: On a stage in Barcelona, Foley's boss spells out with the Pakistan story means for business.


SIGVE BREKKE: Telenor has chosen to take this one step further.

SHAHANI: One step further - the CEO of Telenor Global, Sigve Brekke, is giving a keynote at Mobile World Congress, an annual gathering of the largest mobile operators.


BREKKE: And then with global IDs...

SHAHANI: The Norwegian businessman is telling his peers something surprising and obvious. American tech giants are not the only ones that can follow people around online, collect and sell personal data. Telenor can too, maybe even better. He sits down with NPR to lay out his plans, specifically in Asia, which is the fastest growing Internet market in the world. First of all...

BREKKE: There is no other alternatives to connect to Internet than through your mobile network.

SHAHANI: That's true in much of the continent. Facebook and Google need his company to operate.

BREKKE: There is no fixed line. There is no broadband. There is no Wi-Fi. So in that sense, it makes our position stronger.

SHAHANI: Secondly, most people in Asia don't have credit cards.

BREKKE: The mass markets in Asia are cash driven because they don't have any banking relations.

SHAHANI: Telenor has created mobile money - a way to text or email cash, which means Telenor gets to see exactly whom you're paying or what you're buying online. Google and Facebook have to guess who you are. They've got what the ad industry calls inferred data. Telenor, aided by governments worried about security, is becoming a central repository for your name, where you live, your finances and, Brekke anticipates in the near term, health and education records.

BREKKE: I will say that I don't want to compete with Google or Facebook, but what I'm trying to say here is that in these emerging markets, we have a unique position.

SHAHANI: Bangladesh is having Telenor lead an ID drive in that country, and Brekke says he's talking to other regulators in Asia about doing the same. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, Barcelona.

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