It’s a pretty common occurrence: your mobile phone beeps to record an incoming text message, and when you open it, it’s an unsolicited and unwelcome marketing message. Some are trivial, like your network’s most recent offer to customers on your tariff. But some are insidious, seemingly innocuous but containing great danger. Most people delete them, but some are sucked in, and the mobile phone costs (never cheap) suddenly become ruinous, as customers rack up huge bills on foot of premium rate charges incurred in following up on some of the marketing texts. Regtel, which regulates premium rate mobile phone services, has a useful page on stopping unwanted premium rate messages.
Those who receive the texts, and those who are taken in by the scams, can complain to Regtel or to the office of the Data Protection Commissioner, which are working together to combat mobile spam. So, today, following many such compaints, and an investigation by Regtel, officials from the Data Protection Commisioner’s office raided the offices of a number of companies involved in the mobile phone text marketing business (Ireland.com Breaking News | RTÃ‰ | Marie Boran in Silicon Republic). From the press release (.doc)):
As follow-up to the inspections, the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner is currently examining large volumes of information with a view to prosecuting those companies that have sent or allowed to be sent unsolicited communications to subscribers or that have failed to comply with their obligations to respect the privacy of individuals. These obligations are set out in the Data Protection Acts 1988 and 2003 and in Section 13 of S.I. 535 European Communities (Electronic Communications Networks and Services) (Data Protection and Privacy) Regulations 2003.
Matters won’t stop there; the Data Protection Commissioner will meet with ComReg, the Commission for Communication Regulation, next week, and the four mobile network operators, to discuss plans to prevent companies that break the law from getting access to mobile networks. They should be pushing an open door. Section 4 of The Irish mobile operators Code of Practice for the responsible and secure use of mobile services (pdf), prepared by the Irish Cellular Industry Association (ICIA), provides:
4. Unsolicited Commercial Communications (Spam)
Spam is any unsolicited, unwelcome and/or indiscriminate commercial communication used for direct marketing purposes, including the bulk distribution of messages, where the recipient has no existing or prior relationship with the sending third party. In the case of mobile phone customers, such messages may take the form of unwanted voice, video, text messages, picture messaging and emails.
Operators shall maintain and highlight reporting lines for customers to report or forward suspected cases of Spam to them Operators shall report cases of indiscriminate commercial communication, including bulk distribution of messages, to RegTel and the Data Protection Commission for further investigation where appropriate.
This degree of co-ordination and co-operation between these various agencies and companies is very welcome indeed. It will help to stop the nuisance of spam text messages; more than that, it will prevent phone users from being sucked into premium rate scams. But there is more to it even than that. One of the many ways in which these companies might have broken the law is by improperly sharing the personal data of mobile phone users in breach of the Data Protection Acts, 1988 and 2003. Our privacy leeches away in small steps with every transfer of our data; and unless these are stopped where they transgress the data protection legislation, before we know it, our privacy will have leeched away completely. By taking action against such breaches, the Data Protection Commissioner has sent a signal that he is serious about using his powers to protect our privacy. And that is entirely welcome. Let’s have more of it. Let’s have more good days for privacy.