The app that knows your number

The fast-growing Truecaller raises privacy concerns

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Looking at the Lebanese Google trends data for 2012, one company’s growth shone above any other. In 2012 the number of people searching for Truecaller in Lebanon increased by 4,150 percent – the biggest rise of any term in the search engine, with the next highest growing by just 250 percent. Truecaller’s app has been the most downloaded on both iPhones and Android phones for much of the second half of the year.

The service Truecaller offers is remarkably simple. It allows people to log on and enter a number to find out the name of a caller. In effect it is a backwards phone book – rather than looking for the name and getting the number, you enter the number and find out the name. This service is incredibly useful in Lebanon, where the curse of the missed call from an unknown number is particularly common due to exorbitantly high calling costs.

The app’s huge success in the country has taken its inventors by surprise. Swede Alan Mamedi, who came up with the idea along with a friend after working for a company where he got a lot of missed calls from international numbers, says he had no idea it would take off in the Middle East.

“Our total marketing budget for the app last year for 3000 euros ($4,000). None of that went to the Middle East!” he jokes. “For some reason people started to use our application in Lebanon and now we have become popular in the whole region. Being a market leader in Lebanon is a big success.”

The app is hugely popular globally, with over 1 million global downloads a month, and aside from the Middle East is particularly popular in India and Scandinavia. “We try to remove the land borders and in most parts of the world there are no yellow pages, so our goal has been to be global,” Mamedi added.

Taking liberties?

Truecaller has, perhaps unsurprisingly given the nature of its business, been accused of an invasion of privacy. Show the app to someone for the first time by entering their number and watching their name appear and they often feel outraged.

The numbers are actually collected not through purchasing the data from service providers but in fact from crowdsourcing. When you download the application you are asked if you are willing to share your data, and if so it is uploaded onto the company’s servers.

Elie Fares, a Lebanese student and prominent blogger, has begun a campaign to encourage people to stop using the service. “The problem is not with the site, it’s with you giving them unlimited access to your contact list. Do you want a random company to have unlimited access to it? What if some random Lebanese company uses it to send spam messages?”

“When you are giving a random company access to your contacts – it is the same as saying ‘read my texts’,” he added.

Yet Mamedi believes such concerns are misplaced, pointing out that those opposed to their data being in the public domain can opt out. “When people find out that their number is available it is very important to make sure that our users understand that the information can only be retrieved by entering the phone number.”

“We made it possible for anyone to opt in with their names and phone numbers in their phonebook….If you opt in to share, when you opt out your data gets deleted. If you have friends that don’t want their number there they can delete it. If you want you can untag your whole family.” He adds that the company is taking security concerns into account and plans to introduce new features to protect data.

While there are also concerns about the safety of the company’s data in an era of increasingly powerful hackers, Mamedi said it would be all but impossible for someone to access their servers to get the information. “When it comes to security I cannot give you an example or explain it in technical terms but we have a very talented engineering team that have been working with this,” he added.

Carry on growing

No matter what, 2013 is likely to bring further growth for Truecaller. In September, the Venture Capitalist fund Open Ocean invested $1.3 million in the app, with Open’s Ralf Wahlsten explaining that they believed “Truecaller is positioned to be the leading service in the global mobile white pages industry.”

Mamedi said that whilst hoping to maintain their dominance in the Middle East and other markets, they are targeting Western Europe and the United States in 2013. Truecaller was previously banned in the United Kingdom due to privacy laws, but is now expanding rapidly.

The app is currently free and Mamedi says he intends to keep it that way, instead planning to make money from other revenue streams. “We will be introducing new features to monetize where users can buy extra services,” he said, refusing to be drawn further on the details.

He added that the company was investigating the possibility of adverts and “testing the ad market in one specific country to see if it works… [but] I don’t think it is the right way to go as we don’t want to ruin our application.”

Joe Dyke

Joe has extensive experience covering the Syrian crisis, oil and gas, and Lebanese government and regulatory authorities, among other topics. He was Executive's online editor from 2012 to 2014, and led the Economics & Policy section from 2013 to 2014.

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