Nihlus89/Imgur

Here's Why You Don't Need to Panic if You Get a Creepy Blank Text From 2003

2003 texted, it wants its Nokia back.

PETER DOCKRILL
15 MAR 2017
 

In a bizarre phenomenon, hundreds of people have reported receiving blank text messages from an unidentified number – and the really weird thing is that all these texts seem to have been sent from 2003.

Yep, it's definitely strange, and it's not entirely clear whether this mysterious text wave is down to a technical glitch, malicious spoofing, or some kind of actual time travel (hey, we're not discounting any possibilities here), but unless it's somehow the latter, there's probably no reason to panic.

 

The issue came to light last week, after Reddit user Nihlus89 received a decidedly unusual text message.

Unusual because, first up, the message was entirely blank. Second, it came from an unidentified and extremely long number that doesn't even look like a regular number (seen in the image below).

484928740-texts-2Nihlus89/Imgur

But weirdest of all was the timestamp attached to the text: 8 September 2003. That's more than 13 years ago, and while mobile phones with SMS support were prevalent back then, most of them were much simpler than the smartphones we use today – for context, this was a whole four years before the iPhone was even invented.

"So this happened today," Nihlus89 posted on Reddit, along with the following screenshot. "I got this text from this weird number. Has this happened to anyone else? Should I be worried?"

Amid the inevitable time travel gags – referencing Lost, Stranger Things, and Back to the Future – one commenter called RogerEast said that he'd experienced the same thing, and thought it was all down to a network glitch with the UK carrier (EE).

 

"Serious answer – it's an EE network/iMessage thing. I had the same incident about a month back (multiple texts from weird numbers, from 2003, etc)," RogerEast explained.

"Apparently they ran into some issues when they had their big messaging outage a month or so ago… I was led to believe iMessage activation is done via message behind the scenes, and something went weird when EE were struggling to get their network back online. Seems like this is probably just a part of that."

RogerEast directed Nihlus89 to Twitter to see users discussing the glitch – but the thing is, if you search online, it's clear that EE isn't the only affected mobile carrier, and the phenomenon actually dates as far back as October 2016:

So what's going on here? Are software glitches on multiple carrier networks responsible for these blank texts, or is something more sinister going on?

As commenters on Reddit point out, there's also a chance that these texts could be malicious in nature, with spammers or hackers using a text message format called PDU (protocol description unit) mode to manipulate the data in the message – including the timestamp and the sender's number.

Cyber security specialist Nikolai Hampton from Impression Research in Australia confirmed to ScienceAlert that PDU mode does enable senders to easily fake their metadata if they want to.

"I can confirm with 100 percent certainty that PDU mode can let you spoof anything," Hampton says. "Would you like a message from your mother to remind you to get milk? Give me your number I'll send it to you."

"But this isn't always used nefariously," he adds, "it can be used by booking services that don't necessarily have a reply number, or even carriers pushing settings or updates."

In this case, though, Hampton thinks the culprit is more likely to be some kind of software or network glitch that resulted in garbled data being sent to the recipient.

One of the clues pointing to this is that the number that messaged Nihlus89 begins with a '19', not a '91' – a kind of Short Message Service Centre (SMSC) formatting that should usually precede the actual phone number, including area codes.

According to Hampton, if a software bug shifted the SMSC formatting over by a single byte, the '91' would appear in the actual phone number instead of preceding it, but due to encoding, the numerals would get swapped and appear as '19'.

"So what's with the date?" Hampton says. "If the number is shifted over, it's plausible to think all other data is also offset and even garbled in other ways."

That might explain why so many of these messages seem to be coming from 2003.

"While it's possible that someone is trying to hack phones by sending corrupt SMS data, I think it's more likely that it's faulty software," Hampton says.

"[S]ender numbers can be easily explained by corrupt data, and that data corruption will also modify the date in the message header fields."

On the off-chance that any of these blank texts were intended maliciously, the good news is they seem to be a lot less threatening than previous iPhone vulnerabilities that could crash devices simply by receiving a message or playing a video.

Of course, we're still kind of hopeful that the third possibility is what's going on here – that these messages from 2003 are actually the result of some sort of working time travel – and if we get any further information to that effect, we'll be sure to update this post accordingly.

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