Text blast blabber

IN MANY ways, what is starting to happen on the Internet has been happening in the mobile realm. The mobile phone penetration rate in the country was estimated to hit 75.2 percent in 2010, from only 42.7 percent in 2005, and now text-blasting is being used for everything from campaign messages to volunteer coordination to black propaganda. And while Third Domingo of Ideas X Machina, like other media campaign experts, remains skeptical over online ads, he is a big fan of mobile campaigns, which he describes as “very, very effective.”

The effectiveness of mobile black propaganda alone could perhaps be gleaned from the reactions of Senators and presidentiables Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III and Manuel ‘Manny’ Villar Jr. to smear text messages aimed at them. In February, Aquino spoke out against a message saying that his nephew Joshua, a special child, was one of his advisers. Villar, meanwhile, has decried messages ranging from text scams using his name to allegations of his ties to the Arroyo administration.

As it turns out, the effectiveness of mobile political campaigns, black and otherwise, comes at a very reasonable price. According to mobile technology expert Vincent Gulinao, anyone can put together a system that can send more than 80,000 text messages a day for less than P21,000.

“You don’t need high-specification computers; you just need mid-spec PCs, which cost only about P15,000,” he says. “Then you need GSM modems to send the messages. I’ve used a computer with 6 GSM modems attached to it.”

The advent of telecommunications companies (telcos) offering mobile Internet services resulted in a precipitous drop in GSM modem prices, says Gulinao. “Three years ago, GSM modems cost about P7,000,” he notes. “Today you could get them for less than P1,000.”

The software for automatically sending out text messages comes cheap as well, because open-source software can be downloaded freely. Moreover, says Gulinao, this can be customized for use in the system by most skilled programmers. “Any average geek, even a student, who is familiar with open source software, can do it,” he says.

The cost to run the system would not break the bank either. With the prevalence of unlimited texting promotions offered by telcos and some nifty software coding, Gulinao says that one could send out all those messages for less than P200 a day. He adds that the system would not even require a campaign to hire a full-time geek to run it, as it could be used by any person with some familiarity with computers.

The most difficult part of running an extensive mobile campaign is finding phone numbers where messages can be sent. Industry insiders tell the PCIJ that one possible culprit could be mobile content providers, who provide text, MMS, and other services to cell-phone users. These companies typically maintain databases with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of phone numbers. One high-ranking executive of a mobile content provider says that while telcos maintain privacy policies with these firms, there is simply no way of knowing that a list of numbers came from a certain database once it is out in the open.

Gulinao, who has worked for several mobile content firms, says that it’s not hard to imagine such a thing could happen. In fact, he says, he used to have access to spreadsheets with millions of phone numbers — and that was without leaving his workstation.

But there are other creative ways for a political campaign to get phone numbers. A range of firms from retail clothing stores to supermarkets, to credit card companies maintain databases that include their customers’ phone numbers. Sari-sari stores that sell e-load also usually list down the phone numbers of their customers in notebooks; an enterprising local campaign operative could conceivably go around neighborhood sari-sari stores buying these lists, which would provide the bonus of being able to send messages targeted to people in very specific areas.

The desperate could send out messages to random phone numbers, which is already being done today, according to Domingo. Gulinao says that adding functionality to generate random phone numbers and to store which phone numbers reply back, confirming that the number is active, is an easy addition to a text-blasting system.

A tech-savvy campaign, however, would already use its ground operatives to collect phone numbers. Some local campaigns, says Domingo, even go the extra mile, giving away SIM cards with cell-phone load to voters, making sure to list down the phone numbers of these cards beforehand to tuck away in their database.

The National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) admits that it is helpless in preventing the text-blast of unsolicited messages. Dodie Santos of the NTC’s Public Information Office says that while the agency can ask telcos to block a phone number that sends unsolicited messages, the people running the system can resume sending messages simply by buying a new SIM card. Requiring prepaid cell-phone users to register their SIM cards could solve the problem, but proposed measures to do exactly that have languished in Congress over fears that requiring registration would raise prices of SIM cards and slow down the growth of the industry.

Meanwhile, for many Filipino SMS users, unsolicited messages have become a fact of life, a minor side effect of the benefits of telcos’ cheap SIM cards and even cheaper unlimited texting promotions. So far, it’s been a happy bargain for a text-crazy nation. – PCIJ, April 2010