In the early 19th century, people would call through to an operator, an actual human, and ask to speak to someone by name. Then, circa 1880, telephone numbers made their debut. They looked very different to what we have today, with short combinations of letters and numbers, rather twee by comparison.
Fast forward 140 odd years and forget operators or fixed-line numbers. Now everyone has a smartphone, most have a tablet, quite a few have an Apple Watch. Some have phones with multiple telephone numbers so they can segment work and personal calls from one device.
Telephone numbers have become key qualifiers. Because they’re so portable, they can be kept for life. They’ve become woven into a person’s identity. How often do you hear “I have a new number” anymore?
Nowadays phone numbers are also secure. A telephone number’s analog journey gives it the edge over an email or username, which exist online and are available to users and hackers alike. A mobile number, by contrast, is linked to a SIM card and follows some fairly stringent mobile ID protocols, including a heavy dose of encryption. This secure transmission outside of the internet network is a bit like traveling under Harry Potter’ invisibility cloak: communicating from one telephone number to another makes it more difficult for would-be hackers to track you.
For this reason, the telephone is a perfect authenticator. Organisations, particularly banks, now send automated codes to peoples’ phone, which customers must then enter online to prove they are who they say they are. It ensures you’re not a robot capable of wreaking havoc by enabling attackers to overtake shared key secrets, perform “man-in-the-middle” invasions and steal usernames and passwords.
This is helping in the battle to combat cybercrime, which claims hundreds of millions of euros from European banks each year. It also wards against identity theft on social media. Take Facebook, for instance. Whenever a person logs on, servers look at a range of data: the network they’re logging on from, what browsers or devices a person typically uses, and the third-party apps connected to their account. If it picks up an anomaly, Facebook verifies a user’s identity by sending a code to the person’s phone using their phone number, a valuable line of defense.
An extra layer of protection
Naturally, one form of robust verification helps; two is ideal, as many security experts will attest to. Which? Money in the UK tested the online security of 11 major banks. It found that the best banks in the test used two different types of authentication at login.
These safeguards typically involve something that you know, such as a chosen password or PIN. But it can also involve a randomly generated code from a mobile phone app, for example. Of the banks Which? Money tested, only five used two-factor authentication.
It’s like going out on a chilly day. The jumper you’re already wearing may not be sufficient. Whereas, a jumper and a coat might be overkill, but it will definitely provide the necessary insulation. Two-fact authentication represents that extra layer. It’s doesn’t just hinge on your password or username, which can be inherently weak, but also what you have on. For instance, a code, generated to a phone, off the grid.
Your personal calling card
Telephone numbers also have a crucial role to play in defining a user’s profile. Company numbers are tied to company accounts. If someone tries to access company apps or commercially sensitive information from a different number, the information can be sandbagged.
Given that more and more people are now using one device for multiple accounts (both business and personal), telecommunications companies have made it possible to provide different permissions for each persona. This is done while also building in enough flexibility to transfer a persona to a different device.
If a phone is stolen, the device can be locked. But the number (and with it, the necessary permissions) can be transferred to a different device. It enables you enjoy the many pros of living in the digital era, without being saddled by the many cons including identity theft.
The perennial telephone number
Telephone numbers have evolved over the years, but their principle objective–to contact people with a unique sequence of characters—is still important, in part because of the new role they play in identification.
We live in a world of bits and bytes. Being able to identify someone online without swinging open their bank accounts or personal information for anyone to plunder, or wrenching open their company files for anyone to steal, is worth its weight in gold. Tying authentication to a phone number, which exists offline and is far more difficult to hack, provides this due diligence.
People tend to keep the same number for decades, and for good reason. I have several usernames and passwords, many of which I forget, each with varying degrees of strength. But I only have one telephone number, which makes it a far more effective gatekeeper.
Will telephone numbers remain relevant in an age of newer and newer technology? For the next few years at least, the answer is a resounding yes.
Antonio Latorre Lopez, Product Manager at Voxbone
Image source: Shutterstock/Chinnapong