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Text spam, mobile number privacy and arguing over the internet

· by roy · Read in about 6 min · (1206 Words)
Categories: Just Another Day | Tags:

Globe’s Spam Reports Policy

A few days ago I got dragged into a debate over Twitter regarding Globe’s policy on handling reports sent in via Twitter about spam/scam text messages. When you send in reports of text spams via Twitter, one of Globe’s representatives will ask you to agree that in case the spammer disputes the allegation, they would have to disclose your mobile number to them. For me, the policy seems completely reasonable: if you accuse someone of a crime, they should have a right to know what exactly they are accused of and who exactly the victim was. Apparently some people aren’t okay with this; they complain that Globe disclosing your mobile number would be an additional violation of privacy and opens you up to possible harassment by the spammer. Now, I can understand the concerns, but you have to look at things from the POV of Globe and consider why such a policy exists.

Allowing people to anonymously accuse someone of being a spammer could lead to abuse. What if you had a vengeful ex who sent in one of your texts or someone faked a screenshot to accuse you of being a spammer? I’m not sure what other ways there are to abuse this, but I know that not disclosing your number is like reporting a rape attempt and then refusing to identify yourself. How can the accused defend himself? Sure there is some possibility of harassment, but that’s true whenever anyone comes forward to report a crime. And note that Globe will only reveal your number if the spammer comes forward to dispute, which exposes the spammer himself. I’ve been reporting on average maybe 3-5 spam texts to Globe per week for the past few months (although I have serious doubts on the effectiveness of this – more on that later) and no one has ever come forward to dispute. And I don’t believe any real spammers ever will; the whole reason they use disposable mobile numbers in the first place is to so that they’re hard to catch. Coming forward to dispute charges only exposes them.

Arguing over the Internet

As an aside, Twitter is literally the worst sort of format for this sort of discourse. I got dragged into the discussion by a friend who knew I often reported to Globe, and for a while I was responding via my mobile and working with less than 80 characters per post since there were a number of people (that I didn’t know) involved. Sure enough I got a barrage of replies from some people, one of whom apparently wasn’t even aware that even screenshots can be edited (welcome to the internet!). I really shouldn’t have let myself get dragged into it, but now that I was there, as XKCD so famously put it:

The problem with debating on the internet in general of course (aside from all the trolls) is that a lot of people easily get aggravated and just lash out without even considering other POVs or the reason why certain policies are in place, which makes their arguments not very constructive at all. Instead of trying to understand the situation so that they could suggest possible workarounds or solutions, they just act indignant and insist on their view. Eventually, I finally quit replying via mobile and just waited til I got home so that I could post a longer response via twitlonger. I gave my opinions (stated above) and just said thanks for the lively debate and let myself out of the discussion.

On the effectiveness of reporting spam

As I said, I don’t actually think reporting spam texts to Globe is very effective; these spammers use disposable mobile numbers that they discard as soon as possible and there are literally billions of possible numbers, so disabling their numbers one at a time wouldn’t be very useful. Spam is an age-old problem (in internet years at least) that hasn’t even been solved in the email world, even by big companies like Google. A more reasonable answer would be spam filtering, the same type Google uses for gmail (not Yahoo mail’s filtering, that seems to be much less effective). However, this filtering can’t be done on Globe’s side, since that introduces the possibility of false positives. It has to be done on the client-side, that means on your mobile phone itself. A quick search tells me there are some android apps that claim to provide sms spam filtering, but I’ve never tried any of them so I cannot speak for their effectiveness. And where does that leave people without smartphones?

Another problem is that the default SMS applications for smartphones aren’t as sophisticated as email clients are: no support for folders or automated filters, etc. that would make inbox management a lot easier. On the email side, spam hasn’t really been solved yet but has been brought to manageable levels by filtering. On the SMS side, we’ll have to wait for phone software to catch up.

On mobile numbers and privacy

A better question would be, how do these spammers get our numbers in the first place? There are many different types of spam, and I’m sure many of them just take advantage of unlimited text promos to spam numbers randomly by brute force. One type of text spam that’s fairly common (at least for me) is offers of some sort of loans from different banks. Aside from text spam, it’s actually happened that I received a call from someone offering cash loans from a certain bank. When I asked him how they got my number he just said it was “in their database” and wouldn’t tell me how it got there. I told him off angrily and hung up (I regret that now, I really should have tried to get more details like who his manager was and what branch he was working at so that I could complain to the bank later). What this incident tells me is that the sort of people who blindly push cash loans to people have a database of numbers they use. Some of the calls/spam text I got were from banks that I’ve never transacted with, so I suspect that these numbers are leaked/stolen by unscrupulous bank employees, since most bank account forms ask for your mobile number.  Or maybe these loan spamming operations are sanctioned by the banks themselves? It’s not out of the realm of possibility. If these banks had modern feedback channels like via Twitter or Facebook I’d definitely be asking them about it.

In conclusion?

If I don’t think Globe’s spam reporting policy isn’t effective, why do I still report spam on a regular basis? I don’t know, maybe it’s just a small token of fighting back against spammers, of fighting a war that can’t be won. Maybe every report I make reduces their address space by a teensy-tiny bit and there’s always hope we’ll get there someday. Maybe it’s just cathartic for me, I don’t know. I’ll keep doing it for the foreseeable future, and I’ll be suggesting any possible improvements to the policies where I can. I don’t want to be one of those people who rant on the internet without doing something constructive.

 

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