Who have you been giving your name and number to? A cautionary tale

By Cameron Abbott and Allison Wallace

Have you inadvertently given the owners of global, searchable databases of phone numbers and associated names access to your entire contact list?

We suspect that you cannot confidently answer “no”.

In yet another tale of why you should read the terms of use and service of apps and other online products you download or sign-up to use, we’ve recently been exposed to the shock of having your name appear on a complete stranger’s phone, after they’re given your number (but not your name) to call you. We asked the question of how this could happen – and found the answer to be quite alarming.

The Samsung Smart Call function, which is powered by Hiya, boasts that it allows you to “deal with spam the easy way”, by letting you know who is calling you, even if their number is not saved in your contact list. In theory, this is a handy tool, and in the context of robocalls or other unsolicited marketing calls, doesn’t create any privacy issues. But when the database which powers the function contains the names and numbers of (we suspect) millions of private citizens, this becomes quite concerning.

So, how do private numbers (and the names of their associated users) come to be listed in databases such as Hiya? Well, for one, anyone who downloads the Hiya app is given the option to share their contacts. If they do, and your number is saved to their phone, your details will become part of the database. We have no doubt that many who download and use the Hiya app didn’t realise what they were signing up for (or what they were signing up their entire contact list for) – because they didn’t read the terms of use. This also begs the question – are companies like Hiya properly satisfying their privacy obligations merely by asking users to “opt in” to share their contacts?

Hiya is of course not the only “caller ID” app on the market – a quick search of the Apple App store reveals numerous other options for download – including Truecaller, Caller-ID, Sync.ME and CallHelp. In 2018, Hiya reached 50 million active users worldwide, while Truecaller’s website says it has over 130 million daily active users. Those figures of course would barely scrape the surface of the number of names and phone numbers held in their collective databases.

In case you’re wondering how much damage could really be done by a third party having access to your name and phone number – think about all of the things your number is linked to. Your Facebook, your Gmail, maybe even your bank account and credit cards. Information is power – and this is the kind of information that could easily allow hackers to wreak a reasonable amount of havoc. So before you sign-up to a new app, take the time to read the terms of service, because your use could not only be exposing your personal information, but that of your entire contact list.

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