Since 1999, millions of people have donated time on their personal computers for the SETI@home project, which analyzes radio signals to look for intelligent life in outer space.
An entrepreneur now wants people to donate time on their mobile phones for a less high-minded pursuit.
Lookout, a San Francisco maker of security software for mobile phones, has published a warning about a free app for Android devices called Bazuc, which pays people $0.001 for each text message they allow partner companies to send from users' mobile phones.
The app, which targets people with unlimited text-messaging plans, comes with a major hitch: using it violates the terms of service for many mobile providers, and some people's phones have been cut off. One feature of Bazuc's service is it helps companies evade spam filters by sending messages through multiple user accounts.
Lookout said the app has been downloaded around the world - including detections in Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Ghana, Israel, Thailand, and Venezuela - and that many of Bazuc's customers appear to be legitimate businesses. U.S. and African banks have used Bazuc to send customer-service messages, such as account changes and notification of money transfers, while spammers and other illicit users have also engaged the service, according to Lookout.
The app is one of a growing number of programs seeking to exploit loopholes in the mobile ecosystem and shift the risk of illegal or harmful activity onto individual users, Lookout researcher Marc Rogers wrote in a blog post. It highlights the increasing risks to personal privacy and data security on mobile devices and how sometimes the line between helpful and harmful programs is blurry. Mobile networks have long been seen as a more accountable environment than the wide-open Internet, yet services such as Bazuc's represent a new challenge for mobile providers in detecting fraud.
"While Bazuc is not outright malware, it poses a risk to people who elect to install it," Rogers wrote. "Those who download Bazuc risk their personal information, name and phone number being shared broadly."
The app's creator, Russell Loomis, wrote in an e-mail that users are well aware of the risks of using his service, which are posted in large font on the app's website. Fewer than 10 users have had their mobile services terminated because of Bazuc, and those were because they set the daily quantity of text messages to be sent from their devices too high, Loomis said. Setting a higher number maximizes profit but can also alert mobile providers about the arrangement, Loomis said. Some users earn as much as $135 per phone per month, and the company has paid out more than $25,000, Loomis said.
Loomis said some spam campaigns have slipped through but were stopped immediately upon detection.
"We want 100 percent of our business to be verification codes and alerts," he said. "Advertising campaigns, spam or any phishing etc. will ultimately hurt my business and possibly ruin it completely, so we're doing everything we can to make sure that type of traffic does not go through our network."
The app has been removed from the Google Play store twice, after being downloaded more than 140,000 times, said Loomis. The app is now being distributed from Bazuc's site. Loomis, who lives in Peru, defended the usefulness of his service, which reduces the price for companies to send text messages.
"I see this as a win, win, win," he wrote. "My clients get a cheap price, I earn money and so do 1000s of other people around the world."
For many people, the gamble is apparently worth it. In addition to the wrath of one's mobile provider, Bazuc warns on its site of another danger: Users might also get "random phone calls or texts while using Bazuc" from irritated people who receive the text messages and respond to the number that appears on their phones.
Bazuc has a simple suggestion for users who don't want their phone number displayed in outgoing messages: don't install the app in the first place.