Fascinating as it might seem, Imagine getting call from a number that you have not stored in your mobile phone book but your phone still letting you know the identity of the caller. This is exactly an app such as Truecaller, available for iOS and Android platforms does for you.
Before you jump on to say hallelujah to the utility value of this app, please consider this. Your phone will identify an unknown caller only if someone else has stored her/him on their phone, and shared their directory ‘only with Truecaller’. This you must understand carefully.
While installing, the app asks for your permission to share your directory ‘only with Truecaller’, which effectively means, all your contacts in your phone book, including name, phone number, physical addresses etc. get copied onto a server operated by Truecaller. From that server, it becomes available to other users of Truecaller. The more number of times it finds a name stored by a particular name, it assigns a value to emphasize its trustworthyness. Of course, while installing it gives you a chance not to share your directory with ‘only Truecaller’, but as most people do not bother to read the stuff that appears on screen in the installation flow, the default process takes its course You also have to confirm your own identity while setting up this app on your phone.
Now picture this sequence. Someone unknown calls me. The app picks up the number from my phone, sends it to Truecaller’s server and gets me the name, in case there is a match in their server. So, in the process, Truecaller’s server even learns of your call pattern – who called you, what time, which date and so on. Marketers would love such data in aggregate, especially if segmented by geography.
The premise is that the more number of people who share their phone books with ‘only Truecaller’, the better the data quality becomes. What’s more, you can even search a contact by name.
In response to my Tweet raising concerns on privacy, this is what I received.
— Truecaller help (@TruecallerHelp) February 14, 2013
Why do I call it a privacy risk? Besides your contact number de facto emerging in public domain, imagine an analytics engine running in the background and putting a pattern to my lifestyle, and then making that data report to a marketer for a fee. You call an real estate agent dealing in apartments between 9 AM and 11 AM to enquire about that new apartment and you are pleasantly surprised at the serendipity of soon after receiving calls from two calls from Banks offering apartment finance at competitive rates.Now imagine starting a process of negotiation with the two banks when a third one, watching who their rivals are speaking to, calls you to offer a killer deal. Sounds far fetched? That’s privacy risk.
Frankly, I am not sure if Truecaller app would pass high privacy protection stands of Europe or US. That also partly explains why it not getting high adoption numbers in markets in the West where people are more concerned about privacy.
So what do I recommend?
The first thing I recommend is to unlist yourself from Truecaller’s database. That can be done here.
The second advice is not to use this application at all. Just erase it from your phone. However, if you still wish to have it on your phone, in the interest of other citizens, please do not allow your directory to be shared as this app even allows for contacts to be searched by name. Have a unique name? You are most likely to be accurately identified.