No vaccine for Spampedimic virus of complicit greed

The cell phone is an essential evil of the New World. They have become weapons to steal wealth with stealth. The Spampedimic is the current curse of capitalism sans cure.
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

The paradox of technology is that what starts as a blessing is fated to become a curse. Almost over a century ago Finnish inventor Eric Tigerstedt created a “pocket-size folding telephone” for radio communication between ships and trains. Little did he know that the 21st century version of his mobile phone would become Frankenstein’s monster. The ubiquitous smart tool of myriad shapes and sizes as varied as Bruce Lee’s moves has infiltrated the privacy of boardrooms and bedrooms, recording confidential conversations, emptying bank accounts, accessing intimate details like photos, messages, contacts and such personal data, and resorting to bluster and blackmail. However, the cell phone is an essential evil of the New World. Mobile calls are invisible invaders, not differentiating between the rich and poor. They have become weapons to steal wealth with stealth. The Spampedimic is the current curse of capitalism sans cure.

With the global Smartphone market size touching $ 457.18 billion in 2021, mobile models are proliferating faster than proverbial rabbits. There are over 14 billion mobile devices in the world, averaging two mobile connections per person. India, with 1.30 billion SIM cards is in the lead while China comes second with 1.60 billion. The US has over 350 million smart and not so smart phones. According to government sources, over a million spam calls are generated daily in India. A former finance minister and the President of India got phone calls offering personal loans. A furious judge who was offered a bank loan on his phone ordered the government to take action but the criminal caucus of telemarketers and telecom thieves proved more formidable than the judicial luminary thought.

Almost every minister or corporate captain gets pesky calls offering them furniture, hotel, flats, insurance, interior decoration services, swimming classes and dancing lessons at home. The irony of democracy is transparency. Power loves control and governments love to snoop on their citizens. A phalanx of government agencies that store individual data is a karmic metaphor that spans life and death: by issuing birth certificates, death certificates and everything in between, they are squarely responsible for the pilferage of private information from their servers. They have become a gargantuan shopping mall where cell phone numbers can be sold and bought covertly for a price. Digital India was a powerful slogan meant to empower India.

The country takes pride in leading the world in digital transactions. In the process, it is also plagued by spammers and scammers. Since India is the world’s biggest consumer market, global tele-terrorists are obsessively pursuing its quarry offering everything from potatoes to potassium. A tech savvy mafia of mobile number hawkers operates all over the world with a technology-driven target-oriented modus operandi. They divide the market by products. While one agency harvests intel on guests checking into luxury hotels, others go after high value shoppers and pricey hospitals to collect information on aspirations and antibiotics. Within moments of a high roller checking out of a hotel, they get calls, SMSs and WhatsApp chats, offering them better deals and a room with a view on their next visit.

As tech giants make access to technology cheaper, they have fathered an illegitimate brood of telemarketers. Yoga gurus, sex advisors and fitness freaks have become e-commerce entities. They don’t have to spend huge money on advertising themselves as motivational speakers or gym rats. All they need are telephone numbers to flood with enticing email and texts as sms or WhatsApp. Since smart phones and their software vulnerabilities provide ample options to lure and loot unsuspecting users, many have lost their life savings, property and premium possessions. Apple and Samsung make billions of dollars selling cell phones, without uploading enough preventive software in their overpriced gadgets.

If handsets are at the receiving end of slippery seduction, criminal neglect by telecom companies, government agencies, big e-commerce giants and other digital parasites are behind the data leakages. In fact, Aadhar was the beginning when data stealing became as common as toothpaste. Though the government denied recent reports of a massive breach, it’s unclear whether the technology itself isn’t vulnerable to infiltration: Aadhaar has the maximum private details on its servers since users’ mobiles are compulsorily linked to it. During Covid, another data collection giant Covin was launched with much fanfare and lauded for its sheer size and faultless implementation.

Now it has become an egregious embarrassment without ownership after news about a massive data leak hit the headlines. More disturbing is the unwillingness by telecom companies to install tools to spot and stop spam calls passing through their gateways. Spammers have easy access to greedy telecom executives who sell them phone numbers in bulk. Spammers have bagged even VIP numbers originally allotted to important opinion makers in the late 1990s. Unscrupulous tele-saboteurs purvey these digital digits to agents who harass potential customers. Though the companies are aware of the weaknesses in the regularity system, they don’t want to spend on client security.

The Telephone Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has almost shrugged off all responsibility to protect consumers. Ironically most TRAI chairpersons are superannuated Secretaries of the Telecommunications Department who are disinterested in resolving the very issues they have created themselves through a faulty policy framework. Recently Ashwini Vaishnaw, the Union Minister for Communications, cautioned, “People should never pick up calls made from unknown numbers. I request every citizen that they should respond to calls from only (telephone/mobile) those numbers they recognise.” According to a published report “Indians were the ninth most affected among people from 20 countries being targeted by spam calls.” Vaishnaw said that the government had recently launched the ‘Sanchar Saathi’ portal to block spam calls and cyber frauds. He also claimed that his ministry had blacklisted over 40 lakh dodgy SIMs and 41,000 crooked "points of sale" agents. So far, it hasn’t stopped them from popping up like toxic mushrooms after a malefic monsoon. Yet it is a big business as number robbers are willing to give as much as one dollar for every ten digit number.

Private banking and financial institutions are even bigger culprits. Going by spam calls ostensibly from banks, it’s clear that less banking and more commerce is the norm. Even credible banks like the HDFC, Axis, Kotak and more seem to have engaged faceless salesmen to hawk insurance, motor vehicles etc to their account holders. HDFC leads the nefarious pack of spam callers. With Big Business dictating and directing policies worldwide, no vaccine will be invented to prevent the Spampedimic whose viruses of corporate greed are destroying the mental and financial health of mankind. Unregulated and excessive use of technology provides them with a mantra of minimising costs and maximising profits. For them a wrong number is now the prevalent phrase of the times.

Prabhu chawla
Follow him on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

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