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Privacy invasion and blocking of SMS messages

Scott J
Apr 19, 2024 2:30 PM
Joined Mar, 2019 180 posts

I take gigantic offense at Twilio invading my privacy as well as my guests' by reading my SMS messages and blocking them if they don't like any particular words that I use.

I have had messages blocked because guests texted me asking about smoking weed outside on my property, which is legal in my state, and I answered using the word "cannabis."

That is outrageous and disgusting enough in itself, but I just had a message to a guest blocked because I used the word "shit!"

All of this is just so incredibly deeply offensive. We don't live in the Soviet Union!

Besides the fact that Twilio has zero business reading and blocking texts with words they don't like, my understanding is that OwnerRez can adjust settings to keep inquiring bots/minds out of our business. I wish that OR would look into this.

Ken T
Apr 19, 2024 3:42 PM
OR Team Member Joined Aug, 2019 1646 posts

Let me clarify a few points here.

1. Twilio is not taking this action because they hate weed or want to read anybody's messages.  It's being forced upon them by the actual telecom providers that send the signals (e.g. T-Mobile).  Twilio does not own the communications service, so they have to abide by the policies of the carriers that place the messages in people's phones.

2. The SMS network, like all communications networks these days, is international, and not every country has the same approach to free speech.  In particular, there are certain countries where specific types of message content is illegal.  This is outside of the control of any carrier, Twilio, or OwnerRez, and, since by their nature cellphones are portable, can have all sorts of difficult to handle effects.

3. SMS messages were originally a tech hack used by cellphone service technicians.  They weren't designed in the first place as a proper service to be sold.  As such, much like email, a lot of things weren't thought through in the way we'd do it today.  In particular, SMS messages are simply text in-the-clear - they're not encrypted themselves in any way.  Now, modern digital cellphones do encrypt their entire communications stream between your phone and the tower, so people can't just listen in on your conversations with a radio scanner the way they could years ago - but, inside the carrier network, the SMS messages can be read by any system with authorized internal access to that network.  The same is true of email, which is why spam filters work.  Therefore, yes, the carriers do have the technical capability to read and filter messages, and government authorities have the ability to regulate and require such.

There is no technological capability, by OwnerRez or anyone else, to securely encrypt conventional SMS text messages end-to-end such that they can only be read by the sender and recipient and not by anyone in the middle.  SMS messages just don't work like that natively in their standard form.

There are, of course, various applications that run on top of the SMS message system that can encrypt text messages, and then send the encrypted result.  That way, yes, nobody in the middle including the carrier can read the content.  But to use these systems, both the sender and the recipient must be using the same encryption application, and there is currently no established standard or guarantee that any particular phone number is using the encryption app you've chosen.

In the vacation rental context where you want the maximum potential guests, using such a system would be like requiring all guests to communicate with you only via WhatsApp - sure, lots of people use it, but lots of people don't, some refuse, some aren't allowed to for various reasons, etc.  The result of such a policy would be to greatly limit your pool of potential guests.

The virtue of conventional SMS text messaging, as with standard email, is that you can be pretty much guaranteed that every potential guest can use those systems.

Scott J
Apr 19, 2024 4:16 PM
Joined Mar, 2019 180 posts

Thank you for that education, Ken. But I'm still not understanding.

If Twilio doesn't own the communications system and isn't the one reading and blocking messages, then what system/entity is, and why?

If the rationale for blocking messages with "cannabis" or "marijuana" in it, as I have been made to understand it, is for some kind of self-protection on the part of that entity against imagined or real potential investigations or crackdowns by government agencies, then what could possibly be the motive for blocking messages with swear words in them?

When I had contacted Twilio directly about messages with "cannabis" being blocked, they had told me that I could make some certain settings to prevent the eavesdropping. But those settings are not available to me since I get the service via OR. That also doesn't seem to comport with the information you just provided.

The ongoing fight against warrantless government surveillance is related to this discussion but beyond our abilities to impact other than through advocacy to our elected reps. Yet if all our messages, whether via Twilio or directly with the various carriers, aren't encrypted by using the same applications on both ends, then why aren't our regular phone text messages also blocked when we use such words? 

In short, who or what's behind this selective censorship, and why, remains a deep mystery to me.

Ken T
Apr 19, 2024 4:31 PM
OR Team Member Joined Aug, 2019 1646 posts

If Twilio doesn't own the communications system and isn't the one reading and blocking messages, then what system/entity is, and why?

Per the documentation I have seen, it is the telecom carriers themselves - I've seen T-Mobile mentioned specifically, but logically all the others (AT&T, Sprint, etc.) would have the same technical capabilities.  Presumably they do not all have the same policies, but, since the communications channels interconnect and you don't necessarily know upfront what carrier will handle the final delivery of the message to the actual phone, any restrictions must be enforced across the board.  In some cases there are large fines attached to violations.

I also am aware of laws and regulations in various countries restricting certain topics on communication networks.  I'm not personally aware of specific regulations along these lines in the US, and I am not a lawyer, though I know that, in time past, there have been such laws regulating content sent via carriers like the postal service, e.g. the Comstock Act.  You would need to consult an appropriate expert for current legal status.

When I had contacted Twilio directly about messages with "cannabis" being blocked, they had told me that I could make some certain settings to prevent the eavesdropping.

I'm not familiar with this, but, if you'd like to write in to the Helpdesk with this information to my attention, perhaps I can better understand what they might be referring to.

It is in no way the desire of OwnerRez to read or censor your messages.


Scott J
Apr 19, 2024 5:00 PM
Joined Mar, 2019 180 posts

First of all, I know that OR has nothing to do with the monitoring or censorship.

When I got into this before, it was maybe a year or so ago, so I don't recall what kind of settings were suggested. But now that I think about it, I vaguely recall having gotten a response from Paul along the lines that OR wasn't able to implement them.

I also now recall that I was having all my texts via OR/Twilio blocked as spam, and I had to write to all the carriers to request that they not be before that stopped.

I know you don't have the answer to this, Ken, but it's still baffling to me — if the regular carriers are doing this, why selectively with messages via Twilio or whatever other telephony or VOIP systems, and not with non-encrypted texts sent via telephones? And again, why swear words? Makes zero sense to me. 

A super-quick search I just now did came up with this topic, apparently promulgated by a rightwing misunderstanding (intentional lying?):


So while the claim that T-Mobile is monitoring and censoring personal texts was debunked, either they or other carriers are indeed censoring messages coming through Twilio. Perhaps because that it's coming via Twilio, it's considered potential spam? Still makes no sense to me.

Ken T
Apr 19, 2024 5:22 PM
OR Team Member Joined Aug, 2019 1646 posts

Either they or other carriers are indeed censoring messages coming through Twilio. Perhaps because that it's coming via Twilio, it's considered potential spam?

That would be my guess, and, it's a logical one, because of how SMS works differently from email.

You really have no way of knowing whether an individual email is sent by a human being typing at a keyboard, or by a server churning out enhancement ads by the billion.  With SMS, though, the carriers at least do know that - they can tell that a text was sent from a specific phone handset connected to their network, vs submitted to the overall telecoms network by a bulk-message-sending service like Twilio that's used by companies specifically for the purpose of sending large numbers of messages automatically.

It is also far less likely that an individual message recipient would be annoyed by an inappropriate message sent to them by another human being and blame the carrier - they'd just block annoying Uncle Fred and move on.  With bulk commercial messages, it's more annoying, less easy to block overall because it's not coming from just one specific number, and to the average user, would appear to be something their phone provider could control, just as Google blocks vast amounts of spam from their servers for everyone using Gmail.  So they do.

And, while there are other companies like Twilio that provide telecoms services, they're all seen and handled in the same way by the carriers, so it wouldn't do any good to switch providers.

As far as your number being blocked, that's a quite different issue, precisely because you do have a specific number.  I'm not sure of the details, but, it sounds like some of your guests thought you were their annoying uncle and blocked you - which of course the carriers know, and once a couple do that, the carrier will assume you are a spammer and just block you altogether.  There are avenues of appeal, as you used, but this isn't directly controlled by Twilio either - they can keep submitting your messages to the carrier, but the carrier can keep on just tossing them out.

In my personal opinion, I find email to be far and away the best, most controllable, most consistent, and most reliable communications medium overall.  That isn't because every email message goes through flawlessly - of course they do not.  It's because it's free, easy, global, universal, and the quantities and number of companies involved are so vast that it's difficult to comprehensively censor.  SMS messages has a handful of chokepoints and telecom giants that are able to exert more control widely, while being sufficiently diffuse that there's no simple way to reliably correct mistakes.





Scott J
Apr 19, 2024 5:29 PM
Joined Mar, 2019 180 posts

- It sounds like some of your guests thought you were their annoying uncle and blocked you.

Nope, it started when I used the word "cannabis" in reply to a guest.