SMS’s have gone out from Airtel to some subscribers, informing them that “As per instruction from DOT, airtel needs to publish telephone directory of its subcribers on its website. If you don’t want your details to be listed, please SMS NORQMT to 53636 (Rs 3/SMS)”. Sourced at Airtel told MediaNama that a notification has been received from the Department of Telecommunications for publishing online, a directory of fixed line numbers. Some of the other telecom operators already have a directory listing up, online.
— Sethuraman (@chandsethu) September 9, 2014
Initially, we had been suspicious of the authenticity of this message because of two reasons: it asked for the response to be sent to 53636, and not 121. Remember that 53636 was a short code earlier owned by Activemedia/2ergo. Secondly, because the opting out would cost the sender Rs 3. It now seems that the message was legit, and frankly, it’s rather ridiculous of Airtel to charge customers for opting out of this, when they shouldn’t have been opted in in the first place.
Reliance Communications already has a listing up
If you want to know what this example of a privacy violation looks like, head over to the Reliance Communications website, where you can enter any string, and be shown names, numbers and physical addresses for individuals. It allows searching for individuals on the basis of telephone numbers, Name, Address, City and State. If you enter, say “Delhi”, then the first 50 are listed. If you enter Nikhil, then details of 5 people named Nikhil are listed.
Credit due to Airtel and Reliance: At least they’re allowing customers to opt-out. MTNL isn’t even doing that.
2014 calling the Indian Government
I’m not sure which year the bureaucrats at the Department of Telecom exist in, but it’s 2014, and publishing a directory on the Internet is very different from a printing a listing of phone numbers that someone can purchase from a fixed line operator. It can be copied, mined, shared, scraped, and connected to the publicly available voter ID data. What you have here is a telemarketers wet dream. What’s more, this isn’t 1995, when hardly anyone was online. Thankfully, this directory listing is currently only for fixed landlines, given that a mobile number is far more personal an identifier.
You might this that this is not worrying, since not many people have landlines, but look at it this way: most people with fixed-line broadband connections also have fixed line telephone connections that you get along with the broadband connection. It’s why I still have a landline (which isn’t really used).
Before they do daft things like this, maybe the Indian government should first finalise and pass a privacy law.
Also, maybe it’s time to ditch that landline.