Monday, August 16, 2010

Seymour Butz*

I’m a fan of witty and well thought out prank calls, but when my girlfriend began getting sexually offensive text messages and calls from total and absolute strangers a few months ago I kinda wished there was some device, let’s call it the prank call zapper, that could send a massive enough electric current through the phone to the person on the other line just to be able to teach him a shocking enough lesson never to call again. I guess people had the same problem back when the common mode of communication was by landline. But in the past people had caller id or even if you didn’t have caller id you could reverse search the number via the operator or the white pages if you had that much time on your hands. Today reverse searching landline phone numbers is easier with the web’s equivalent of the white pages. But with cell phones prank callers get a little more anonymity. By simply buying a new subscriber identity module (SIM for short) card, people can change their cell phones in less time and at less cost than if they were to change their landline phone number. A person wouldn’t even have to look that far to change his SIM card. In almost every nook and cranny of our metropolis is a shop or a lone sales person offering SIM cards with enough preloaded prepaid credits to offset what the SIM card originally cost. So prospective prank callers, especially those with nothing better to do with their time, can change numbers as easily as they could change their dirty perverted clothes.

There are some ways of countering this one of which is to simply block their messages. Most new phones have features that can screen unwanted text messages. I use this function on my phone to block ad messages from sun cellular and globe telecom that tended to fill up my inbox. Phone calls are a different matter – I have yet to encounter a call blocking feature on any of the bottom of the line cell phones I’ve bought (maybe Nokia reserves it for those with enough money to buy their smart phones). An obvious solution would have been to just look at who the caller is through the caller ID but when some call wakes you up at 2 or 3 in the morning, taking a look at a bright screen is not a very welcoming sensation. It’s sometimes easier to just answer the phone and ask what kind of person was raised by their mother who would have the insensitivity to wake a person up at such late an hour. If however a person turns their cell phone off they might just miss an important call by someone who was raised by their mother correctly and actually has an immediate and legitimate concern.

Legally speaking what can be done about prank callers especially those with with sexually offensive intentions? In the United States, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 47 U.S.C. § 223(a)(1) makes some prank calls a felony with penalties of up to two years in prison, and possible fines depending on severity. However, such penalties are rarely carried out. Here in the Philippines the problem of cell phone prank calls remains that there is no reliable way to identify the caller aside from caller id (which only shows the phone number) . Hence even if there were a law punishing prank-calling there would be no way to enforce it. A bill has been filed in the senate (SB 191) by Senators Lacson and Gordon proposing to require buyers of prepaid SIM cards to register personal information via valid documents as a way to counter use of prepaid SIM cards by criminals (prank callers included). Such a measure is also a benefit in business and commercial transactions, where people display their products online along with their cell phone numbers. Being able to check and match a name on that cell phone number is a definite advantage since it adds a little bit more credibility to such transactions.

However it must be remembered that the same anonymity that allows prank callers their measure of insulation from the law also affords the rest of us some level of privacy. The anonymity makes it that much harder for the government and eaves droppers in general to identify our numbers and listen into our calls. If there were no anonymity well… that’s some scary stuff right there especially for those of us who, at the very least, feel uncomfortable with the possibility that someone might be able to zero in on us and listening in on supposed private conversations. Measures like SB 191, requires some deep introspection on the part of our lawmakers. If such a measure is allowed to pass into law we may just be trading away a little bit too much of our privacy. I guess I’ll just have to wait for someone to come out with a prank call zapper.

*Bart Simpson: see more butts

Linus Madamba

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