TRAI’s spat with Apple over app access to messages and call logs

Pankaj Doval, Times of India (via Applesutra):

Telecom regulator Trai has accused iPhone maker Apple of engaging in “data colonisation” in India and being “anti-consumer” by not allowing customers to pass on details about pesky calls and unwanted messages to authorities as well as their mobile operators.

“While Google’s Android supports our Do-Not-Disturb (DND) app, Apple has just been discussing, discussing, and discussing. They have not done anything,” Sharma told TOI.

Sharma is the Chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), a government organization that, among other things, oversees the functioning of mobile network carriers in India.

TRAI has published an Android app called Do-Not-Disturb to help curb marketing cold calls and SMS messages. The app is tied to TRAI’s NCPR database of mobile users and their opt-in / opt-out preferences regarding receiving promotionals calls and SMS messages. A key feature of the app is helping the user report a promotional call or SMS they have received that doesn’t comply with their registered preference. To implement this feature, the app requires access to the phone’s call logs and messages. It displays recent calls and messages that the user can pick from and report a complaint on.

When the Android app was launched last year, TRAI did have plans of bringing a similar app to iOS as well, but that hasn’t happened so far. A Public Interest Litigation had been filed in the Delhi High Court asking for such an app to be made available on the App Store, and was dismissed by the court last month.

There’s no public API in iOS to read call logs or SMS messages. There are ways to block certain callers and filter certain SMS messages 1, but the provided API is restricted because of privacy considerations. To block callers, apps can provide a block list but have no way to intercept calls or access the call log. To filter SMS messages, apps can classify SMS messages from unknown senders as they come, but are not allowed to keep track of them and use them later on (like showing a list of messages to choose from).

What TRAI could do

TRAI could, with the current available API in iOS, write an app that could be useful in reporting spam calls by including a share extension for contacts 2.

The user, while viewing the call log on an iPhone, can tap the info button and then the ‘Share Contact’ button to bring up a share sheet that could show a TRAI share extension to report complaints. The share extension would get the phone number from the shared contact information, but there’s no way to share the date the spam call was made. However, there are only three possible options: ‘Today’, ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Two days ago’ (because TRAI requires that the complaint be filed within 3 days), so it should be okay to ask the user for that information.

So that would give us a pretty good way to report spam calls.

This share extension method would also work for reporting promotional SMS messages received from actual phone numbers, but would unfortunately not work for SMS messages with alphanumeric sender IDs. That means in most SMS reporting scenarios, this wouldn’t be useful.

What Apple could do

I think Apple is highly unlikely to create public APIs to access call logs or messages, but that’s not really needed for an app like this.

Rather, Apple could provide a way to share an SMS through a share sheet, so a third-party app can get access to all relevant fields of an SMS message (i.e. body text, sender id and timestamp) that the user explicitly chose to share with the app. That way, TRAI can create an app to report errant SMS messages, while Apple can retain their right to not give apps blanket access to the phone’s SMS data.

Update: Apple now offers a much more complete solution for reporting spam calls and SMSes with the SMS and Call Spam Reporting API, which would be perfect for a TRAI iOS app to make use of.

So this is how I think TRAI and Apple can settle this without compromising either party’s positions, and simultaneously keep Apple’s privacy-conscious customers happy as well.

  1. The message filtering capability is part of iOS 11, to be released later this year 

  2. With Uniform Type Identifier as “public.vcard” 

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