Authorities in Kazakhstan have banned a popular and much-discussed mobile phone app over concerns it is undermining privacy and, in some cases, sowing strife within families.
The Information and Communications Ministry said on February 9 that it has put measures in place to block access to GetContact, an app devised by Turkish software designers.
GetContact’s primary ostensible function is on its face relatively harmless. Its creators argue the app helps protect people from scam calls and nuisance telemarketers and enables them to screen out undesirable contacts.
Mobile phone owners who download the app are required to share their own contact list — names and numbers alike. All of this data is then stored on the remote GetContact database. This means that when other people running the app on their phone receive a call from an unknown person who also happens to have their contact details on that list, what appears onscreen is not just a random number, as happens when a stranger rings, but a name.
But it is the full extent of the information made available that is getting many hot under the collar.
One function of the app allows users to plug in phone numbers at will and to see how all GetContact users have identified them on their phonebooks. To give an example, one might choose to look up their own number, only to find that they have been described in people’s phonebooks with all manner of unflattering epithets. Managers at companies might discover to their chagrin that all their subordinates secretly hate them and list them as "Stupid Boss" and such. Some people may discover that their friends all secretly think they are a fool, and so on.
Another scenario that has two-timing lotharios worried is that long-term partners could type in their phone number and find their name among the contacts of lots of suspicious third parties.
In a much more serious breach of privacy, contact details can sometimes include home addresses, places of work, and even details about medical conditions.
Azerbaijan banned the app on February 7 following a spate of reports of family bust-ups caused by shock revelations. Baku-based The First News website provided details on the circumstances that led to at least one breakup.
“I checked the number of my husband and I found that he is listed in somebody’s phone book as Vyusalya Mamedova [a female name],” one suspicious and sleuthing social media user cited by the website explained. “That means that he has a married lover, who has decided to hide this relation from her own husband. So as to avoid suspicion, she listed the contact under a female name.”
The same news outlet reported that a gynecologist in Baku listed all her patients with their full names and medical diagnoses. One man reportedly sought a divorce after discovering that his wife had sought a hymen repair operation before their wedding.
In the context of Kazakhstan, there is another set of problems posed by the practice among many wealthy and powerful men to secretly take on second wives, or tokal — in effect, long-term mistresses. GetContact theoretically leaves such men open to being rumbled.
There is any number of other awkward permutations, from mere embarrassment to outright fraud.
Media in Kazakhstan have gone on the offensive, urging the public to be on their guard against the app. Tengri News website went one further and offered tips from a psychotherapist on how to deal with family disputes sparked by GetContact. The same article also gives instructions on how to delete one’s number from the GetContact database.
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.
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