Disappearing data? Mystery solved!

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A general view of the headquarters of South Africa's MTN Group in Johannesburg, May 27, 2008. South African companies and investors are beginning to use their base in Africa's biggest and most sophisticated market as a springboard to move into the continent's fast-growing frontier markets. Picture taken May 27, 2008. To match Feature FRONTIERS/AFRICA REUTERS/Mike Hutchings (SOUTH AFRICA - Tags: BUSINESS)
This past week some shocking news emerged that confirmed what many cellphone owners have long suspected: Their data is mysteriously disappearing, even when they’re not using their devices to connect to the internet.To understand the sheer effrontery of what’s been happening, imagine the following scenario

You live in a small town and decide it’s time to trade in your fuel efficient, but rather boring little run-around for a much more powerful car. There are just four motor dealers in town, all with filling stations attached to them, but you opt for MT Motors because you bought your current car there and this makes the trade-in process simpler.

You take delivery of your shiny new V8 and it’s everything you expected, powerful, sporty and head turning. But, boy does it use a lot more fuel than your old car. Significantly more than you’d budgeted for, in fact. You raise this with Mike, the owner of MT Motors, and he gives you a few tips on how to drive in a more fuel-efficient manner. They help a bit, but your fuel gauge is still dipping alarmingly.

Bafflingly, this seems to happen even on the occasions you’re away on business and your car is unused.

You raise this with Mike and he scoffs at the idea that fuel can disappear on its own. He reminds you a V8 will use more fuel than less powerful cars and repeats the fuel saving driving tips.

Unconvinced, you decide to conduct an experiment. You park the car in your carport, fill it to exactly the full mark on your fuel gauge using a jerrycan, make sure the fuel cap is locked, then leave it there, using a hired car to get around for the next 11 days.

Over that period, you check your fuel level every few days and are shocked to see it drop from full, to three-quarters, to half and, finally, to a quarter tank. You repeat the exercise, but this time you install a hidden camera in your carport. What you discover astonishes and infuriates you.

There, in grainy, but unmistakable, green-tinged black and white is Mike sneaking into your carport at 2am every few days with a syphon and a jerrycan. He’s got his own key to your fuel tank, so the locked cap is no impediment to him filching back the fuel you’ve already paid him plenty for.

When you confront Mike with the evidence, he admits it, but insists all the other dealers do the same thing. When it turns out that they don’t and he’s the only one stealing back fuel from his customers, he promises he’ll stop doing so soon.

That, in essence, is what has been happening with mobile data, as an investigation by tech website, MyBroadband.co.za, has revealed.

The MyBroadband team bought and registered new prepaid SIMs from MTN, Vodacom, Cell C, and Telkom. Each prepaid SIM was loaded with a small amount of airtime via an online banking app and placed in a Samsung Galaxy S7 smartphone.

The phones were connected to the same wi-fi connection and the “mobile data” usage option in Android on all four devices was turned off.

All settings similar to Wi-Fi Assist or dynamic network switching were also disabled, as the investigators wanted to ensure the smartphones did not establish a mobile data connection during the test.

On July 11, the prepaid SIM cards were installed in the smartphones and had the following airtime balances: Vodacom R12, MTN R10, Telkom R10, Cell C R10.

MyBroadband says no user actions which would have consumed airtime or data were performed. The smartphones remained powered on with their mobile data switched off, and their wi-fi connections on, for a period of 11 days. Airtime balances were recorded regularly throughout the test.

“What happened during the test truly surprised us,” reports MyBroadband. “While the airtime balances on the Vodacom, Telkom, and Cell C SIMs remained the same throughout the test, the airtime balance on the MTN SIM steadily decreased.”

The MTN number also received daily SMSes from MTN warning it was using out-of-bundle data – despite the mobile data option in Android being turned off.

The data usage monitor on the smartphone further showed that 0 bytes of mobile data had been used in the last 30 days. The airtime balance on the MTN number exhibited strange behaviour, and would occasionally increase slightly before continuing to decrease.

The airtime balance of the MTN SIM decreased to R6.38 by July 17 and R4.60 by July 21.

By contrast, the balances for each of the other prepaid SIMs on July 21 were Vodacom R12, Telkom R10 and Cell C R10 – exactly what they were at the start of the experiment.

When MyBroadband confronted MTN with its finding, it fessed up to the data depletion, saying this was due to the devices establishing an LTE network connection.

“MTN would like to note that even though data was switched off, the smart devices used in the test consumed data were connecting to the LTE network, this is how LTE works,” MTN told MyBroadband.

According to MTN, these connections count as valid data traffic and the sessions incur a minimum data charge of 3c, a tariff the company filed with Icasa.

When told none of the other networks were charging their customers for the LTE sessions, MTN said it wasn’t aware of this and promised to stop doing so. “As a matter of priority, we are going to adjust our tariffs and align our data charging in LTE with our competitors. This will be implemented within the next 30 days,” it told MyBroadband.

As a long time MTN subscriber, I’m horrified by this revelation and the company’s response which, when you boil it down, amounts to, “Oh, we thought all the other networks were gouging their customers on LTE. But now you tell us they’re not, we promise to stop”.

I’ll give MTN the benefit of the doubt and accept their stated ignorance of their competitors’ business practices, but this doesn’t explain the decision to adopt this blatantly customer-unfriendly policy in the first place.

Even more deplorable, in my mind, is that MTN only revealed this when confronted with hard evidence. It’s not as if there haven’t been plenty of opportunities to do so.

Nowhere, as far as I can see, in any of the data saving tips MTN has issued to the media and on its own blog, do they point out that none of these steps will be any defence against them siphoning data out of their customers’ accounts.

It makes you wonder what else they’re not revealing.

Follow Alan Cooper on Twitter @alanqcooper.

Sunday Tribune