Mobile Spam

by Andy Polaine on May 14, 2002

in General

This is an article that I wrote a while back for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in Australia. The original link to and title is Protecting the extension of your personal space amd examines the issues of spam and privacy in the mobile arena. Thought I would post the link up here for posterity as well as for any editors looking for future writing from me.

The article follows in full – click on “Continue reading…” below.

Protecting the extension of your personal space

By Andy Polaine

May 14 2002

Mobile phones are becoming increasingly personal devices, allowing ever-higher degrees of customisation. The car is the only other technology with which we have such an intimate relationship and a large part of this rapport comes from these technologies being an extension of our personal space. Unlike our televisions or PCs, which we turn off and walk away from, we carry our phones everywhere, along with our car keys and wallet. They contain our most intimate phone numbers and give others direct access to us. They allow us to exchange messages via SMS and are a social, commercial and, sometimes, emergency lifeline.

It is precisely because phones and PDAs are so personal that wireless spam is so intrusive. Users tend to react quickly and extremely negatively to marketing messages that are sent without permission. Recently in the UK, supermarket giant Sainsbury’s used an SMS to advertise 400 jobs at a store it was opening. Sainsbury’s had obtained the phone numbers from a direct marketing agency and the message began "I wnt u, I need u, I cnt get enuff of u" before going on to advertise the jobs along with the phone number of a job centre to call. Although the ad was targeting a youth demographic, the job centre was bombarded with complaints within minutes. The complaints ranged from people concerned with where Sainsbury’s obtained their numbers to those whose partners suspected them of infidelity.

According to ZDNet UK, Sainsbury’s media officer was less than repentant saying, "It has been a success. We have had 80 inquiries in the two days before the ad was withdrawn."

This suggests that it is OK to spam people if it gets results. Nikki Murrell, wireless Internet analyst at Ovum, says that, with this approach, everyone loses. "Operators risk increased churn," she says. "Vendors risk losing brand equity and, if SMS spam is permitted to grow in the way that e-mail spam has flourished, users are likely to dismiss all SMS-based marketing material, even if they have asked to receive it."

On NTT DoCoMo’s network in Japan the situation is further advanced, with heavy spamming and viruses already a problem. Last year, phones on the network were infected with a virus that randomly dialled the emergency services. Some customers found themselves having to explain themselves to the police – prank calls to emergency services are illegal. This forced NTT DoCoMo into adopting anti-spam measures such as only allowing a fixed number of domains to message the user’s phone and incorporating anti-virus software in future handsets.

Andrew Scott, a researcher in 3G networks at Telstra, says that, in Australia, it still costs the sender something to send out an SMS, so it is not yet attractive to spammers. However, as we move forward in IP-based systems, this is set to change. "Spam becomes a huge issue," Scott says. "DoCoMo has real problems."

NTT DoCoMo’s network architecture is relatively open, allowing spammers to use IP-based services to send out bulk text messages that cost nothing. The problem is compounded by the fact that, on packet-based networks, the customer is paying for all the data they receive, including spam. NTT DoCoMo has resorted to crediting its customers with 400 packets of data a month as a buffer to incoming spam and the associated cost.

I recently travelled through Singapore on my way to Europe and when I turned my phone on in the airport I was immediately sent two text messages from Optus/Sing-Tel. The messages welcomed me to Singapore and told me the exchange rate. I found this novel and also useful but any more would have been intrusive. But Ovum’s Murrell points out that Japan already has shops messaging adverts and vouchers to customers as they walk past. Future developments look likely to focus on location-based marketing.

As a result, a market is opening up for intelligent agents that deal with these messages on our behalf. Rocking Frog is a wireless data technology business within BTexact Technologies’ corporate incubator Brightstar in the UK. Its aim is to enhance users’ relationship with their devices and the world around them by providing relevant, timely, personal and business information appropriate to their location and profile. The user’s profile is created when an account is first established and can be modified via a wired or wireless Web interface. The software then modifies the importance of information it

offers based on usage. Immediate benefits are simply finding a service (such as a restaurant) nearby, without having to surf the wireless Web. Your profile already knows you like Italian and gives you the choice of the three restaurants in walking distance.

Rocking Frog ensures the user is always in control, however, it envisages a time when profiles may act on the user’s behalf. "While shopping in a department store, your profile communicates with the store’s ‘objectives’ and arrives at an agreement," suggests one of the designers. "New socks, black, cotton, special offer – up one floor and turn left."

MIT and other institutions are researching Augmented Reality (AR), in which information is displayed in the user’s field of vision, either by projecting on to special glasses or directly on to the retina. Applications for AR range from military and medical to street directions and advertising.

To display information over the top of the real world, AR knows exactly where you are and even in which direction you are looking, wirelessly. There is potential to overlay virtual advertisements on your view of the world, a technique used in televised sporting events where computer-generated ads appear to be painted on to the pitch.

Although most governments are looking to legislation to outlaw spamming, perhaps the winning combination will be the network whose software agents are smart enough to tread the fine line between advertising and "timely information". Certainly it seems there is potential for battle between advertising or even security agents and those of the user. One thing is certain: our digital assistants look set to become even more personal and part of our intimate lives.

"The phone will be the most personal device someone owns, next to their underpants," says the designer at Rocking Frog.

Andy Polaine is a Sydney-based interactive design consultant and writer.

This story was found at: http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2002/05/10/1021002428754.html

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