We Can Remember It For You Wholesale

Last week the UK’s Home Office, began to considering plans to archive all email and telephony communication as part of the forthcoming Communications Data Bill and ongoing national security operations. As both the BBC and the Times have noted, the proposals originate from an administration that has a comically appalling record of data loss.

Like much coverage of privacy issues, debates flip between Orwellian panopticons at one extreme and absolute privacy at the other; neither is a viable or desirable position. The reality of privacy is that most people view it as less an absolutist human right and more a social construct or vehicle for social transaction; we often trade elements of our privacy for social, reputational and sometimes economic value.

Perhaps the most significant and desirable quality of privacy is a sense of control over how privacy can be revealed, retained and traded by the owner of information – this control is central to the theories of attention economists and startups such as Root Markets.

Gcall_2As such, it’s possible to recast the plans of the Communications Data Bill as a benefit to citizens (note that I’m against this bill, but supportive of exploring services that might bring some benefits to archived communication.

Think of all the valuable metadata and media generated by your mobile phone in the course of a day – generally, this is visualised as a dry, itemised billing experienced, when in fact – as illustrated by Gmail – aggregating your personal communications can be immensely valuable. More so as we live our lives in a multi-modal soup of IM, email, SMS and voice calls.

Picture a service that logs numbers, costs, duration and partieds to a call…even transcribing the audio content automagically, or using human APIs. Each call becomes a searchable, replayable and accountable history of your telephony; as the concept screenshot above illustrates – our cellcos have this data, it’s not difficult to see how this becomes a feeature of a service such as Google, perhaps even creating a new value chain in the attention economy between users, Google and telcos. Of course privacy converns remain unaltered, but the user in this scenario is extracting some palpable value and a modicum of control.

As time+distance becomes increasingly irrelevant in an world of VoIP, perhaps future value for telephony resides in brokerages for attention data. Ian, began to explore this as part of an R&D programme at Orange – Project Comcentrix – described as a ‘Flickr for telephony’. However, perhaps the near ubiquity of Gmail and it’s capability for archiving AIM, GTalk and email means that archived telephony is simply a telco-provided feature for webmail providers.

Wow, I just realised, Google’s noted mission to ‘organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’ isn’t so linguistically different from Philip K. Dick’s ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’!

UPDATE: Tim O’Reilly just Twittered that SkyDeck are working on the problem!


  1. We’re almost there with Android and the iPhone SDK…I have a couple friends who can implement this quite rapidly…question is would you invest 😉


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