In 2020, it was estimated that close to 85% of Canadians owned a smartphone, and Canada’s big three telecom providers reported having a combined subscriber count of over 33 million subscribers. These statistics are a major positive as our economy looks to embrace the technology changes that are beginning to be brought about as a result of the digital revolution. In that digital world, a telephone number is guaranteed to be as important as a drivers license or even a passport, but there is one major problem that we are failing to account for, and that is the recycling of telephone numbers.
Telephone numbers and social media.
When social media giant Meta first allowed users to create accounts with telephone numbers, their good intentions made it possible for an unlimited amount of accounts to be created under a single telephone number, and it was still possible to do so in 2020. The “good intentions” were not well thought out and it became possible to exploit this feature in order to create spam accounts which could be monetized for likes, comments, and follows. With a little bit of knowledge on how to code, it was possible for algorithms to create accounts on their own, and the hardest part of this operation would be creating a clean website that offered “boosting services”.
While some might argue that Meta and other social media platforms intentionally allowed an unlimited amount of accounts to be created under the same telephone number in order to inflate their user database, the reality of the situation is that telephone numbers have been getting recycled since cellphones became a thing. Tech developers understand that a person who gets a telephone number in 2020 may not be the same person who had that telephone number in 2010. What they failed to account for was creating a set of parameters that specifically tracked the duplicity of accounts created under a single telephone number, but they may have assumed that their databases were already programmed to do so.
There are potential privacy issues with recycling telephone numbers.
There was once a time where an IP address was once seen as the centralized location for all-things digital, but the change from wired connections to wireless connections has placed a greater importance on telephone numbers to serve as a modern-day IP address. That means that there are serious implications for individuals and families that lose access to their phone numbers, since telephone numbers are now utilized for everything from verification and authentication to security prevention. For the average person, losing access to a telephone number that was used to register for various accounts almost guarantees that they will not be able to reobtain access to many of those accounts.
If telephone numbers were treated like email addresses, it is likely that we would not have had these sorts of challenges because once someone gets their desired “@outlook.com” or “@gmail.com”, nobody will ever be able to have them. Even if the owner of that email address chooses to permanently delete their account, it is almost beyond probability that it will be “recycled” into use.
All of this brings us to the important question we all need to ask, and that is whether the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunication Commission will need to introduce new rules around the recycling of telephone numbers given their growing importance in the digital world. Perhaps, it requires connecting with different oversight bodies and asking them about their long-term strategy for telephone numbers and to what extent are they aware of the potential privacy concerns.
In a world where getting access to your accounts requires having your phone number be you, recycling phone numbers is closer to Soylent green than environmental.