Tuesday, November 10, 2009

SMS Spam: Stopping The Flood Before It Happens

4039283970_79445cb98e_o Is it just me, or is there an increasing amount of unsolicited SMS messages hitting my phone? First were all the Access Bank messages. Then there are the Dana Air messages I have received over the past few days. It hasn’t become a really irritating issue yet, but email spam wasn’t either in the early days. Now it makes up 80% of all email traffic worldwide.

Email spam is evil for many reasons. Many times it offers illegal or questionable items or activities. Other times, spam could actually be a phishing attack, a trick that ends up with your computer infected with viruses, your financial information compromised or any number of evil things. At the very least, email spam takes up so much of your mailbox and it distracts you and wastes your time. It forces businesses to spend so much on tools that block spam from your email. Expensive email storage is taken up by these messages if the spam blockers are not efficient enough.

email spam has forced legitimate businesses who want to connect with customers or potential customers to jump through so many hoops to get email messages to people. So businesses have to get people’s permissions upfront before they can send them email messages (“opting in” is the preferred term), they need to provide a means for people who have already opted in to opt out. Many countries have laws against spam.

Before email spam, there was what I could call “voice spam”. Telemarketers are often the scourge of US households. Telemarketers call your home to try to convince you to buy stuff. Many times they are making legitimate offers. Other times they are tricksters. Once, while visiting the US three or four years ago the home I stayed in was deluged constantly with phone calls from telemarketers. Not an hour passed without the phone ringing with someone making another offer. The US has systems in place called “No Call” lists in various states and cities. You register to get on “No Call” lists and telemarketers are not allowed to call you. There are legal penalties if the telemarketers call numbers on the list.

Now I said all that to say this: as businesses begin to increasingly use SMS to advertise their products and events, these SMS messages could begin to take on the qualities of spam. As a matter of fact, unlike email spam, which is a problem for ISPs, telecoms service providers actually profit from the flood of messages (they bill the senders). So there is actually a disincentive for them to be part of any attempt to control SMS adverts. However, before it becomes a problem, regulatory bodies (Madam Dora and NCC) and telecoms companies need to set up rules and systems that give users control over whether or not they can be sent advertising text messages, or filter out what messages they can receive. Businesses to which we give our phone information should be explicit in how they intend to use that information before we give it to them. We probably need our own equivalent of no call lists.

Of course, I may just be raising a false alarm. SMS spam may never become a real issue here in Nigeria. More likely though, its only going to be delayed en route to hitting us. The cost of messages may keep this prohibitive for most businesses. On the other hand, the internet has provided mechanisms for making so many expensive things (both good and bad) cheaper to accomplish. Indeed some may not share my viewpoint and see these messages as a source of valuable information and products. Either way you see it, the ability to control your personal communications and decide what reaches you or not, can only be a good thing.

What do you think?


Photo courtesy of G-rated Birdman on Flickr.

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