Had enough SMS spamming? Well, take more!

Your mobile number is bought and sold to anyone that wants it.

By living in formal society we have all kinds of connections–financial and personal–that monitor our habits through our mobile phone number. The most conspicuous way we can see this happening is through SMS advertisements.

"There are several places where mobile numbers could be used for advertising, including the [mobile] operators," said Ahmad Gharbeia, an ICT consultant concerned with privacy issues.

Although not authorized by his company to speak to the press, a director of mobile advertisements for one of the three Egyptian operators told Al-Masry Al-Youm that SMS spamming, or a wave of messages sent out to many mobile numbers at time, increased in Egypt in the last few years, with a particular spike starting the beginning of 2009.

An SMS advertisement–-with the exception of mobile companies themselves–-likely originates from a company that purchased a database of thousands of numbers. People write down their number while registering for a conference, for example, without knowing that information will be compiled and sold.

Also, scams exist from spammers who hack into emails and social networking sites, or send out mass messages to a huge amount of numbers, many of which do not even exist. The sender’s number may also be from a fake international dialing code that is not in use and cannot be traced. 

The origin of an SMS is not always clear unless a you have an established relationship with an organization, like a bank account. But once you’ve given your number to someone, it is shared in many places. Mobile operators, banks and other financial organizations, marketing firms, publishers–all organize what they know about people with a particular mobile number and sell it to customers who then advertise en masse.

Businesses have many advantages to using SMS campaigns. A mobile phone user will probably view an SMS, which cannot be screened like phone calls or ignored Internet banners.

Khalid Ragab, the owner of the Burger Kitchen chain, purchases databases for SMS campaigns. The database includes a rating of the customer’s income, a geographic location and an age range. He said he notices a spike in sales of particular products when he has used SMS promotions.

"They are very effective just in terms of reminding customers to our brand, said Ragab. "We believe it’s very cost effective as well."

Although Ragab said that occasionally people he knows have told him that the messages are "quite annoying," he could not recall a time when a customer called and asked to be removed from the Burger Kitchen’s database.

"I don’t think there’s a proactive culture here that asks to be removed from the list," he said, adding that removing someone from his list would simply be a matter of "pushing the delete button."

A request to be removed from a mailing list  online is typically called an "opt-out" or "unsubscribe." Removal from an SMS is not nearly as simple as online, which usually gives the option at the bottom of an email. In an SMS advertisement, there is rarely–if ever–this option.

In the absence of an opt-out option in SMS advertisements, the onus is on mobile operators to prevent spamming on their networks. Operators have little incentive to stop spamming if the government does not require them to do so and if they profit from the use of their networks.

Said el-Alfy, the head of the Egyptian Consumer Protection Agency, agreed that legislation is needed to allow consumers to be removed from mailing lists, but the government has yet to make a decision about it.

"It’s something that needs to be looked at," he said in December. "We are investigating it."

Egyptian mobile operators have done little so far to prevent spamming, even though the technology is available. Firewalls, anti-spam applications, defining trusted numbers and flooding, or limiting the number of SMS messages from a source, are some of the ways to stop spam. Operators could also very easily set up an automated system online or through the phone to remove customers from SMS mailing lists.

They can also raise SMS prices to increase the cost of spamming, although regular customers would also have to pay higher prices. Already this has been done internationally through what is known as AA14 network agreements between mobile operators across international borders. These AA14 set the price of an SMS from a network in one country to a network in another. The Egyptian mobile operators cited this agreement as the reason for increased international SMS prices in October last year.

A phone call to an Egyptian mobile operator to stop SMS spam can be an exercise in futility. After speaking to several customer service representatives at Vodafone and MobiNil, Al-Masry Al-Youm often heard that the companies do not have a system to prevent spam or to remove a number from a mailing list.

"This is an indirect confession that they are [allowing spam]," said Gharbeia, who is also the online community manager for Al-Masry Al-Youm. "They can stop it," he added.

Spamming is hardly a new concept. Direct mailings through the post office has long been a marketing technique. Telemarketing calls to homes in the United States became frequent and at obtrusive hours that the US government set up a registry known as the "Do Not Call List." Although it has only been around since 2004, the US Federal Trade Commission has used to it to file many lawsuits against telemarketers.

Even with the aid of legislation to prevent spam, privacy advocates are concerned that companies can so easily buy and sell personal information. Once a person’s data is available, it is difficult to make it disappear even by changing phone numbers.

Different companies have different types of data. Banks and credit companies have details about a person’s assets and spending habits, while a mobile company knows calling patterns that can determine someone’s circle of friends and family–as well as from where calls are made.

The web of information gets deeper and deeper with extensive data mining. In Hollywood movies, government security agencies track the locations of mobile phones in real-time with sophisticated gadgets. Covert tracking of most people is less exciting albeit more exhaustive. Where you spend money, how much you spend, who you interact with on a regular basis–contribute to a personality profile available to anyone that wants to buy it.
"[Mobile operators] know so much about us that they can have fairly informative profiles of their clients," said Gharbeia.

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