Bloomberg recently ran a piece on mobile spam texts reaching 4.5 billion. You can read it here. It cites the eye-catching number of 4.5 billion spam messages in 2011 in the US, an increase of 45% from the previous year. It sure caught my attention until I realised that the 4.5 billion messages form only 0.001% of the 2.3 trillion text messages which were sent in the US in 2011 (check out the CTIA's statistics here). So, is mobile spam really a problem?
As always, it depends on how you look at it and who you talk to. Let's take the second point first.
To the developers of anti-spam and mobile security software, it would be a definite yes. The mobile phone and tablet is the vast untapped market with promises of incredible growth. Unlike desktops and laptops, it is common for an individual to have multiple mobile devices and a tablet to boot. Even children have mobile phones and tablets. The Bloomberg article also made mention of the potential in that market. For consumer groups, it would also be a yes but this would be more on the basis of the failure to obtain consent, and the nuisance factor.
For the network operators and other service providers in the value chain, you might get some polite nods as SMS is still a large revenue generator for them with estimates of SMS revenue making up more than half of the worldwide mobile messaging market. At the same time, it does cost the network operators time and money to deal with subscriber complaints about spam. However, I don't think they will want to bite too hard on the hand that feeds them (at least not until they figure out how to replace that revenue). Same thing for marketers who use the mobile channel for targeted and contextual marketing. The mobile channel allows them to reach an audience in real-time with advertisements which are relevant to the audience.
Different perspectives will generate different opinions.
Personally, I feel that the size of the mobile spam problem will not reach the gargantuan size of email spam (spam email is about 90% of all email traffic globally). To some extent, it is a self-limiting problem. This is because the cost of sending email spam (estimated at about US$0.00007 per spam email) is much lower than sending an SMS (which is still in range of cents or half of a cent). That would limit the volume of spam.
That being said, the nature of the mobile spam is potentially in my view, more insiduous than email spam. The real issue, I feel, is not the nuisance factor or the fact that people know your mobile number or that you don't want to buy anything from that person. The real issue lies in the security threat initiated by the spammer with a more criminal intent. The mobile spam message could contain a link which if clicked, would lead the phone browser to a compromised or malicious website or download malicious payload onto the mobile phone. What makes the threat much worse for users is that most users of mobile phones do not download or use any form of mobile security software (as compared with their desktops and laptops). At the same time, more users are using their mobile phones for banking, payments and for storing personal, sensitive or business information. The value of that information would be very attractive to the spammer with more criminal intentions.
While there are no easy solutions to the security threat caused by mobile spam, I think that it would not be addressed through anti-spam legislation which is really aimed at spammers with a real intention to market or offer goods or services. The spammer with criminal intent would not be deterred by such legislation. More useful would be education (as most users are very unaware of mobile phone security) and commercial arrangements where more network operators (acting as partners of the security software vendors) bundle mobile security software with the smartphones, and co-operation between the OS developers and the vendors to minimise vulnerabilities in the OS.