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Thou Shalt not use SMS!

Reading Time: 3 min

On January 25th, 1915, Alexander Graham Bell revolutionized the way we communicate when he yelled, “Watson, please come here. I want you!” Fifty-six years later Ray Tomlinson made history when he sent the first email in the year 1971. The email said, “QWERTYUIOP”. Then on December 3rd, 1992, Neil Papworth from Vodafone Inc. introduced the first “killer app” for mobile phones when he sent a short message from his computer to a mobile phone that belonged to another employee. The message said, “Merry Christmas!” Today we know that technology by the name Short Message Service or SMS.

SMS marks 30 years of service coming December. While its sibling technologies like the DVD have “kicked the bucket” already, SMS is still alive and kicking. Although originally designed for dumbphones, SMS has piggybacked its way to smartphones also. Just like an emissary of the devil! Not even Apple, the creator of the glorious iPhone with a wild west reputation for getting rid of obsolete technology has dared to exclude the SMS app from their devices. Therefore, I charge thee in the name of the Lord Voldemort today, Ahem…! I mean Vodafone, “thou shalt not use SMS!” Here’s why?

SMS is Unreliable

I sent a mission-critical message to my colleague at work around 3.19 PM on the 14th of this month. The message was, “I can’t access boss’ Twitter account. Maybe he has changed the password. Please check. The fate of the world depends on it.” (I considered sending the message through WhatsApp but sent an SMS anyway.) She replied 3 hours later, “Why did you wait until the last minute to tell me? He has boarded the flight already and I cannot reach him now!”

I got my shields up. “Sorry, my fault! I will text you at 3.30 am next time!” I snapped. Long story short she figured out the SMS had been delayed due to a technical glitch. We are on the same network. She uses an iPhone, and I am on a decent device although not an iPhone. Still, the SMS failed to reach her instantly. I told myself. “Oh, say can you see; how unreliable SMS could be.”

SMS is Vulnerable

I know what you are thinking. “Dude, I have nothing to hide!” Me neither but did you know, why in a game of chess, you have more soldiers compared to all the kings, queens, knights, and bishops put together? Soldiers are expendable when devising a strategy to eliminate the kings and queens. When a cyber crook targets your device in a campaign designed for promoting SMS malware, he is not interested in stealing the photos of your kitty or poodle (although your nude selfies will be a bonus.)

You see, attackers can turn your device into their soldier, which they can use to compromise many lucrative targets, your corporate network for example. Especially if your employer permits BYOD. Nowadays a kindergarten kid can set up a stingray or a rogue cell tower to intercept the One Time Password sent to you via SMS by your bank or Financial Institute and clear out with all your money within 30 minutes. You see, SMS is so vulnerable, for crooks sky is not the limit.

SMS is not Flexible

Although the service has been around for more than 30 years, SMS still is a rigid technology. It doesn’t allow more than 160 characters. If you send an SMS to a dumbphone not capable of displaying long text messages, the message will arrive in multiple chunks. WhatsApp on the other hand allows 700 characters per message. Telegram allows 4,096 characters per message. Besides, once you send a message with SMS you can’t call it back. It’s gone forever for better or worse. (My previous device had a feature where you can delay the message for 5-10 seconds but it’s not available in the new devices)

With WhatsApp and Telegram, however, you can delete a sent message for the sender and the recipient within a given time cap. SMS is also subject to government regulations whereas WhatsApp and Telegram are not. Then you must install 3rd party software if you need to send and receive text messages on your PC. Software that you can’t trust. If you are using WhatsApp or Telegram, however, you can conveniently download and install the official software and start sending and receiving messages on your PC. So why communicate under restrictions when you can communicate freely with WhatsApp and Telegram?

Wrap Up

I charge thee in the name of Vodafone once again, thou shalt not use SMS! Ever! Now I do understand some of you cannot thrash your SMS app so quickly but at least don’t use it for communicating mission-critical information or sensitive information such as passwords and PINs. Definitely don’t complain about the privacy issues with WhatsApp and Facebook because with SMS privacy is dead.

I’m not saying WhatsApp and Telegram are perfect. It was not that long ago, we found out the FBI can access our WhatsApp accounts [Full Story] and iMessage content [Full Story] partially at least. My point however is if law enforcement can access even secure messaging platforms such as WhatsApp and iMessage how easy it must be to access your insecure SMS content. In the meantime, while I was thinking about how to close this post, I figured out what can be a better way to point you to this ancient relic of a TV Commercial by Dialog Axiata (Dialog GSM before 2012.) featuring SMS.


Comments Policy: Your comments on this post are welcome as long as provided in a diplomatic tone. Comments that are offensive or discriminating will be deleted.

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