For a few days in March 2021, millions of Indians were suddenly no longer able to access many of the apps and services they relied on in everyday life. Every time they request a one-time passcode (OTP) to authenticate a banking transaction, retrieve a forgotten social media login, or sign up for a vaccination appointment, they waited forever for a text message that was never on the go.
Why? As it turns out, the one-time passcodes required to run these services have been blocked by India’s new blockchain-powered SMS scrubbing system designed to reduce spam texts.
Obviously, this was not the intended result of the anti-spam system. The plan itself had noble intent, but due to some anti-competitive lawsuits and a bundle of red tape, most companies were reluctant to comply with the new telecommunications rules – which ultimately prevented their OTPs from reaching their users. To remedy the problem, India’s Telecommunications Authority has suspended the rollout of the anti-spam blockchain network, which will allow OTP shipments to resume and access to all banks, social media accounts and everything else.
In retrospect, it is hard to see India’s anti-spam plan as anything but a failure. But despite the fact that the adoption of this technology was so botched, India’s blockchain-based spam blocking idea still looks promising. In many ways, it’s a glimpse into what blockchain technology could do beyond cryptocurrency – and well worth revisiting.
The never-ending scourge of spam
Spam has grown continuously in double digits worldwide in recent years – there is no end in sight.
In the US, cellular customers received a record 7.4 billion spam text messages in March 2021, 37% more than the previous month. In 2020, fraudulent SMS losses amounted to nearly $ 86 million, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
And in a country like India, home to 1.36 billion people (more than four times the US population), the problem is even worse.
Giulia Porter, vice president of RoboKiller, a spam blocker, believes the reason spam problems spread around the world is simply because of the complexity and diversity of the telecommunications industry – where there are no incentives or regulations to make spam calls in a unified un to stop way.
Porter adds that advances in technology have been a double-edged sword, as they have also enabled spammers to constantly adapt and develop new methods to bypass enforcement efforts.
Faced with such a large and unruly problem, India decided to test a powerful new tool: blockchains.
On India’s anti-spam blockchain
India’s blockchain framework, designed to curb “unwanted commercial communications,” enables authorities to bring accountability and traceability to the country’s rampant spam industry. To do this, marketers, bulk mailers and wireless service providers have to register in a digital ledger. This network also hosts users’ preferences as to whether or not to receive unwanted messages.
Only if a commercial bulk SMS meets the system’s anti-fraud standards – and the person concerned has chosen to receive the message – can it be delivered. The rest is scrubbed.
In a country where everyone receives multiple fraudulent calls and text messages every day, it was high time India took action. Nobody expected it to become a blockchain-based technology.
India has nearly a billion cellular users and over a billion commercial SMS messages are transmitted in the country every day. Relying on traditional channels to organize these piles of sensitive data – controlled by dozens of carriers and marketers – would have meant hoarding it all in one central location, making it less secure and more prone to security breaches (like it several in the past in India). A distributed, blockchain-based approach seemed like a much better idea.
With this distributed architecture in mind, India has developed a system in which each telecommunications operator can set up a dedicated node on the country’s cellular network. The customers, marketers and individual mobile radio subscribers of each operator exist as a branch of the telecommunications node. All inputs from these sources automatically flow through the network in real time, eliminating the need for a specific entity to maintain its separate database.
When politics and technology collide
In theory, India’s decision to adopt a blockchain is reasonable. After all, the distributed nature of blockchain is exactly the kind of technological backbone that government agencies need to address such a dispersed and chaotic problem as spam. Since every call or SMS is checked for traces of fraud and matched against the choice of a person, there is little scope for fraudsters to bypass security measures.
Unfortunately, India’s solution did not go according to plan as the country handled the implementation incorrectly. It has been hit by countless roadblocks to date, the most significant of which has to do with the fact that local authorities have concentrated control of the network in the hands of a single company called Tanla. Complaints from other marketers and telecommunications companies argued that Tanla’s own business relied on bulk SMS marketing campaigns, creating a conflict of interest. The introduction of the technology has been dragged through the courts and has yet to prove its effectiveness in the real world.
Raja Jurdak, a professor of distributed systems at Queensland University of Technology, Australia, told Digital Trends that while the idea is superficially attractive, it “involves multiple issues such as trust, scalability and data protection.” With India choosing a private network instead of keeping the blockchain network public, Jurdak says there are privacy concerns about how the data of hundreds of millions of users is being handled.
Jurdak adds that concentrating access and data in a single company goes against the key design feature of blockchain, which is the decentralization of trust.
Can blockchain save us from spam once and for all?
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Although India got the execution wrong, experts believe that its blockchain approach could still serve as a template for the rest of the world and theoretically save us from spam.
Jurdak suggests stepping up decentralization and providing appropriate incentives for potential blockchain validators to participate in maintaining the blockchain – similar to a cryptocurrency – which would reduce the need to trust individual participants.
India is not alone either. Blockchain has been silently turning a number of legacy services around the world upside down and updating them for the new, virtual world. For example, some hospitals in the UK are using blockchain to track the temperature of several coronavirus vaccines before they are administered to patients.
Similarly, a global consortium of telecommunications operators and providers is building a distributed ledger to tackle “Wangiri” fraud calls. In the “Wangiri” concept, malicious actors leave an abrupt missed call from an international number to people. If someone calls back, these actors can afford the hefty international connection fees. With blockchain, telecommunications companies can exchange information on detected “Wangiri” calls in real time and integrate the global data into their algorithms in order to proactively put an end to such frauds in the future.
A central blockchain requires everyone to put their trust in a single organization that can “play God,” said Brian Behlendorf, Linux Foundation general manager for blockchain, healthcare and identity, to Digital Trends
“Distributed ledger technology enables all parties to place their trust in the system,” he says. “That changes everything.”