Huawei Exec.: Tension between technology and privacy hampers industry


This article is part of our special report Broadband: driving recovery?.

A new industry standard is on its way for smart home technology, but there are other challenges facing the industry, notably the clash between technology and privacy, according to Huawei’s standards expert Richard Brennan.

Richard Brennan is a vice director in Huawei’s industry standards department, based in China and Europe. He also represents the China Standards Authority internationally.

Brennan spoke to EURACTIV’s Jeremy Fleming at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

For a shorter news piece based on this interview, click here.

Why do industry standards matter to companies involved in creating future smart homes?

If you look at the ‘machine-to-machine’ environment, it has been very tied to industry sectors, so you have an ITS [Intelligent Transport System] design, you have a smart home design, you have a smart grid design and they have their own optimised sensors and internal applications. The killer application that some 20-year-old designer is going to design transcends those industry silos or verticals, but the big problem faced by industry is how to mix and match those standards.

What have companies been doing to deal with the problem?

An initiative within the industry is to build a common service layer which ties together the multiple applications at the top level with all these different types of machine-to-machine communications at the lower levels. So this is being brought together by the same seven standards organisations that formed the 3G [broadband standards], but it’s a different kind of organisation because it is going to require the actual involvement of connected industry associations. This is a different model from 3G, and its going to use communications technologies, many mobile technologies, but also many other types of communications technologies, so it has to be open to all of them.

The working name for this initiative is 'one m-to-m' and the papers should be signed in Tokyo at the end of March. This is the first step to try to tie together, and to get our arms around, this global movement of billions of devices that are all going to be ‘addressable’, and to marshal them into what users want.

What do users want?

They want an application which they can grab, have launched on their behalf, and then ignore for the rest of time.

Is this initiative dominated by one company or country?

I don’t think you can say there is a company leading this, there are some very big names [other than Huawei] very involved: IBM, Hewlett Packard, Accenture, with high-level involvement in putting together these bundles of applications and services. You see lots of the known manufacturers of devices, making things from wafer-thin devices up to larger modules for cars and trucks.

Where is demand for smart homes likely to be more pronounced?

If you look at the applications running in your house, what people will tend to procure initially will be cost-reducers. The first things will be reduction of energy costs, which is probably the number one motivator for managing smart homes and smart grids in developed countries. In developing countries it is the opposite. There you have a limited availability of energy, so you want to make sure it is being used equitably and wisely across distribution, and monitoring allows you to target that very effectively. So it has benefits at both ends of the scale and that means it has global opportunity.

Are smart homes really all about gadgets and energy conservation, what other possibilities are there?

It is not just energy monitoring or multimedia networking, it is also medical monitoring by your insurance company. You will not have the motivation to put in medical monitoring but your insurance company – if you start to have a condition – they will want that monitoring as a condition of the insurance, because it will reduce their total cost of healthcare. So in looking for what solutions can fit into smart homes, you have to look at where will the money go that could benefit from having these kind of sensor networks.

How much are companies such as yours examining the possibilities for health monitoring, and other monitoring services?

Huawei enterprise business groups are looking at selective sectors and forming relationships in those industry sectors to identify, quantify and start the research and development work to support moving those industries forward in this [smart home] environment.

What are the regulatory challenges affecting the development of smart homes?

Although Huawei is China-based, it is a global company, and only 30% of our business is in China, so we have to pay attention to regulatory and other guidance from national and regional sources everywhere. There is a different regulatory policy on these challenges in every country or region.

What is the single biggest regulatory challenge?

One of the key balances is that between technology and privacy, especially with medical monitoring, so we know from the start of how we need to build and design systems which enable privacy at the appropriate level for the system being deployed. Someone else at the political and regulatory level gets to define the policy for that area.

The privacy issue is currently sparking debate across the EU and US, what is you impression of the direction of those jurisdictions on the issue?

In the US it is ‘freedom of speech’, in the EU it is all about constitutional privacy: those are opposing forces that cannot be balanced.

I think there are concerns generally about these two different models. One is the controlled internet versus a very open construct, which is governed by freedom of speech and not much else. They need to be balanced. As businesses we have to respect the desires of our customers and the environment in which they are doing business. We need to follow the decisions, understand and comment in a positive way in each area where those decisions are being made, we are looking at the EU environment discussing them over a broad set of issues to make sure that the network technical capabilities mirror well the policies that are being asked for on the regulatory side.

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