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Giving wireless subscribers more control over their text message in-boxes is also the goal of software under development at Lucent Technologies’ Bell Labs in Murray Hill, NJ. Lucent’s system looks forward to the near future, when so-called location-aware applications could make mobile spam all the more insidious (see “WhereWare,” TR September 2003). Federal requirements that most cell phones be capable of reporting their geographic location to 911 emergency systems by 2005 have inspired wireless carriers and marketers to dream up non-emergency uses for their newly gained ability to track phones-say, sending you a coffee ad or coupon when you get within a certain range of a caf.

Lucent’s prototype lets carriers create online menus with which customers can specify things like which kinds of businesses they’d like to receive messages from, at what times of the day or week, and within what geographical radius. “If the consumer can block a merchant from viewing his location information, the merchant has no idea they’re passing by,” explains Rick Hull, Bell Labs’ director of network data and services research. Over the coming year, the software will be folded into existing software that handles data moving between the Internet and telecommunications networks.

Meanwhile, even more-exotic spam is starting to show up. In South Korea, Japan, Britain, and parts of the United States, next-generation cellular networks allow high-bandwidth data transfer, so messages can include not just text but also photos and animations.

With multimedia spam already a problem, wireless providers are trying “opt-in” requirements similar to those already in use in Europe to keep such elaborate junk ads under control. In the United Kingdom and other countries, wireless carriers use a system of “common short codes,” five-digit numbers that consumers find on billboards or magazine ads and type into their phones to receive text-based promotions. Last October, U.S. wireless carriers agreed to a similar system.

Of course, clever spammers will keep finding ways to sneak some messages past industry controls. “It’s like those old Mad magazine Spy versus Spy’ cartoons: spammers come up with something, and we have to come up with something to counteract it,” Lofdahl says.

And this means the 150 million cellular subscribers in the United States-the majority of whom own phones capable of two-way text messaging-have little chance of entirely avoiding getting spammed.

Stopping Mobile Spam in its Tracks COMPANY TECHNOLOGY/STATUS Brightmail
San Francisco, CA Software that uses thousands of decoy accounts to detect text message spam and blocks messages from suspect addresses; being tested by European wireless providers Lucent Technologies’ Bell Labs
Murray Hill, NJ System that blocks unsolicited text messages based on location, time, and other factors; will be added to cellular-networking software this year Openwave
Redwood City, CA Software that blocks messages from cellular networks if they arrive in high volume or from untrusted sources; launched in the United States in February 2004 Telcotec
Dublin, Ireland Software for cellular networks that analyzes images in multimedia messages and offers subscribers the option to block adult content; launched in May 2003 Wireless Services
Bellevue, WA Spam-blocking software for cellular networks based largely on established techniques for e-mail spam detection; launched in November 2003

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