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Monday, April 15, 2024

The Fight Against Robocall Spam and Scams Heats Up in India

Indian phone users may not have to wonder who that “unknown” caller is for too much longer. Regulatory changes being considered might help them avoid that pesky telemarketer and the annoying call from a bank customer care executive trying to sell insurance.

In an attempt to combat the plague of spam calls, India’s telecom regulator is in the process of drafting a consultation paper supporting a mechanism that would allow phones to display the name of a caller even if the number is not saved on that person's phone. This name will be sourced from the Know Your Customer (KYC) data that telecom operators are required to collect from users before providing them with a SIM card.

“We are in the process of preparing a consultation paper,” Syed Tausif Abbas, an advisor to Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, tells WIRED. “It will take maybe one month at least. Once the paper is [ready], it will be in public domain for the comments of stakeholders.”

India has witnessed a sharp rise in spam calls over the past year. According to a report by Swedish company Truecaller—which counts India as its biggest market—the country was the fourth-highest spammed of the 20 it surveyed in 2021, climbing from ninth-highest the year before. Over 200 million calls came from just one spammer between January and October 2021, according to the company. Even though the majority of the calls were spam, over 1 percent of them were scams in which the callers pretended to be from a bank or a financial technology startup and asked customers for their personal details. Over the past few years, Indians have had to deal with a barrage of fraudulent calls that have caused some to lose money.

While Truecaller—and similar apps—can help identify the caller’s identity in some cases, the information may not be accurate, as it is crowdsourced rather than based on official data. And while India’s attempt to fight spam and scam callers on a larger scale may help make citizens more aware of who’s calling them, some policy experts say the effort will be futile and raises questions of privacy.

Pranesh Prakash, policy director of the Center for Internet and Society, says knowing who a number is connected to and being able to dodge spam or scam calls would in some ways be helpful. “It might be good for people to know they are talking to so and so, or the cell phone is registered under so and so’s name, [especially] if they have been subject to fraud or something like that. So it might actually be useful from that perspective,” says Prakash. But he’s not entirely sold on the idea.

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His biggest concern about this proposal is the sharing of KYC data with the government in the absence of a comprehensive data protection law in India. “There’s an anemic provision of the IT [Information Technology] Act, which acts as a data protection provision, so what the government does with the data that you have entrusted to it isn’t actually governed by a law,” says Prakash. That said, the data privacy draft law is expected to be discussed in the Indian Parliament soon, and if passed it could provide a layer of protection for user data.

But there are other concerns. Archana Sivasubramanian, a senior researcher with the Centre for Policy Research, questions the overall utility of the plan: If the intention is just to let people know who is calling, it does not address the underlying problem of spam. “What purpose is it serving if it just notifies the caller that this person is calling,” she says. “It’s not fully solving the problems of spam calling.” 

Sivasubramanian points to the US’s Truth in Caller ID Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law in 2010, as an approach India could draw on. This legislation outlaws ID spoofing and prosecutes robocallers, and it also has an authentication function to automatically identify robocalls. “The US has protocols on how to authenticate calls which filter out the robocalls, and [then] they have prosecution for that,” says Sivasubramanian. “Here [in India], by just displaying caller ID, yes I will know the number, but will it cause any less frustration just because I can see a name associated with that spam call? I don’t think so.”

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