In October 2021, I called a journalist based in Pakistan, who did not know me. Surprisingly, they greeted me by name when they got the call. When asked how they identified me, they sent a screenshot of a notification received from the Truecaller app on their phone. The notification contained my name, the name of my former employer, my designation at my former company, the state in which I was based, and the name of my mobile carrier. The reporter told me that they recently installed the Truecaller app, from the Google Play Store, on an Android phone.
“Humne aapko pehchaan liya. Humein toh yeh bhi pata hai ki aapka yeh whatsapp number by registered hey” – I recognized you. I even know that this number is registered on WhatsApp – the journalist from Lahore laughed. They sent me another screenshot of a notification sent by Truecaller, which said my number was saved on Whatsapp. I was stunned, as I had never used Truecaller on this number, nor downloaded the app on the device I was using. Also, neither Truecaller nor Google ever asked for my consent to use or display my private number.
Truecaller was developed by True Software Scandinavia, a Swedish company founded in 2009 by Nami Zarringhalam and Alan Mamedi. Mamedi is of Kurdish descent and was born in a refugee camp in northern Sweden, and Zarringhalam moved to Sweden from Tehran when he was three years old; both are Swedish citizens now. “The app started when our co-founders were just college students who wanted to create a service that would easily identify incoming calls from unknown numbers,” its website says, adding that Truecaller “is the go-to app for anyone who knows who they are.” caller ID and spam blocking.” On October 8, 2021, the company listed its initial public offering on Nasdaq Stockholm. According to crunchbase, the company has raised a total of $98.6 million across eight rounds of financing, with Zenith Venture Capital, Atomico and Sequoia Capital India among the main investors.
As of March 2021, according to the website, its app had been downloaded more than 581 million times – India accounts for more than a third of that – and its database had 5.7 billion unique phone identities. The company is headquartered in Stockholm, but the majority of its employees are Indian. This is no surprise because according to the company’s statistics, out of its more than 278 million monthly active users in 175 countries, more than 205 million MAUs come from India alone, making the country its largest big market.
While India is a huge and lucrative market for digital solutions of all hues and purposes, a week-long survey by Caravan shows that the apparent success of Truecaller in the country is based on rather dubious motives. Conversations with a former employee who worked with the company for more than half a decade in various leadership positions, privacy law attorneys, and think tank experts dealing with Policy research revealed that the majority of Truecaller’s datasets are made up of details that were collected without consent, a feat made possible by the lack of a comprehensive legal framework surrounding data protection in India. Another aspect that came up during our investigation is the fact that the company can also build a comprehensive financial profile of its registered users.