WhatsApp spam calls: India seeks to protect users

whatsapp spam calls
The Union government promises action to protect users as India faces a massive surge in WhatsApp spam calls.

WhatsApp spam calls: In the last few days, many users of WhatsApp have been receiving spam calls from unknown international numbers. With the issue becoming a concern in India, the ministry of electronics and information technology has sent a notice to the Facebook-owned messaging app, asking it to ensure user safety. This aligns with the government’s proposed bill on Digital Personal Data Protection.

WhatsApp users in India have reported a massive surge in incoming international spam calls. The issue gained attention when users started sharing instances on Twitter. A significant number of these spam calls had country codes belonging to Indonesia (+62), Vietnam (+84), Malaysia (+60), Kenya (+254), and Ethiopia (+251). While some users receiving extortion video calls, others received job offers that turned out to be scams, tricking them into paying money later after joining Telegram groups.

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WhatsApp is one of India’s most popular messaging apps, with over 500 million users. Incidentally, India is also WhatsApp’s largest market. In response to the ongoing issue, WhatsApp stated that it has deployed Artificial Intelligence (AI) to identify spam messages. AI systems can learn to recognize patterns in spam messages, such as the use of specific keywords or phrases. This allows WhatsApp to block spam messages before they reach users.

Solving WhatsApp spam calls menace

While WhatsApp has claimed to be working on resolving the issue, currently, it may only be able to stop around half of the spam calls. As there is no way to prevent spammers from calling on WhatsApp, the government and digital platforms must raise awareness about the ongoing spam. The platform is also seeking user intervention, suggesting that individual users can help resolve the issue by blocking and reporting suspicious messages or calls.

The government is now considering guidelines on permissions for preloaded apps. This resolution is crucial as internet literacy is lacking in a significant portion of the population, which makes them vulnerable to scams. The government has also emphasized the need to investigate how scammers access these numbers. While it is possible that scammers are randomly contacting numbers on WhatsApp, it is also plausible that they have a database of WhatsApp users, which would be a privacy violation. In any case, the government believes that platforms should be held accountable.

As the government prepares to launch its Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, IT Minister Chandrasekhar tweeted on Wednesday that the government will investigate a claim that WhatsApp accessed the microphone of smartphone users while their phones were not in use, which is an alleged breach of privacy. WhatsApp later explained that there is a bug on Android that misattributes information in their Privacy Dashboard, adding that they have already asked Google to investigate and address the issue.

Spam calls are not a unique problem to India. Several countries, such as the United States, Australia, and Japan, have already implemented measures to control spam calls. However, while many countries have enforced “Do Not Call” systems to help consumers avoid telemarketing calls (similar to India’s “Do Not Disturb” or DND service), scammers continue to find new ways to create nuisances.

However, India’s efforts towards DND have not been successful with nine in 10 subscribers complaining of getting pesky or unwanted calls for brand promotions or sales despite registering on the Do Not Disturb service by their respective operators. A recent survey by community social media platform LocalCircles shows that the DND service is ineffective in the sense that the subscribers receive unwanted calls from personal mobile numbers and not landline numbers or commercial numbers belonging to a particular brand, resulting in by-passing of the entire DND system.

Possible policy interventions

With ever-evolving technology, cybercrime is skyrocketing as scammers exploit digital illiteracy to make money on the internet. Cyber awareness and hygiene, therefore, become crucial aspects in creating a policy framework. Financial frauds due to cybercrime are also a growing concern for businesses. As the world becomes increasingly digital, more financial transactions are taking place online, making them vulnerable to cybercrime.

The government must also look to deploy artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms to detect and prevent financial fraud, as WhatsApp is doing. These technologies can detect anomalies in financial transactions, identify suspicious patterns, and flag them for further investigation. Machine learning algorithms can also learn from past incidents to improve their detection capabilities.