Telco Fraud Forum Repeatedly Broke the Law

Some people in the telecoms industry are both atrociously ignorant and unforgivably selfish, so it sadly comes as no shock that a UK telecoms body that is supposed to uphold the law has been caught repeatedly breaking the law because they wantonly pirated intellectual property from multiple websites. Commsrisk is just one of several victims of systematic and deliberate theft perpetrated by employees of the Telecommunications UK Fraud Forum (TUFF).

Every other week there is an article on Commsrisk about piracy. This is because the widespread infringement of intellectual property rights, including copyright, is a major source of financial loss for many telcos, as well as for the professionals and businesses who work in journalism and the creative industries. So it beggars belief that TUFF ignored every Commsrisk article about the scourge of intellectual property theft and decided to republish, in its entirety, and without seeking permission, the whole of a recent Commsrisk article entitled “Our Problem Is with SMS, Not SS7”. Before TUFF could remove the evidence I took a screengrab and also saved the page as a web archive.

There is no need to mince words; abusing intellectual property rights is a form of stealing. Scraping and republishing content from a website without permission is no different to looting the contents of a shop window. And Commsrisk is not the only victim of TUFF’s disregard for the law. A page on the TUFF website entitled Cogitatio Exasperans has been used to reproduce stolen articles from the New York Daily News, Digital Trends, The Register, and the Guardian. Incredibly, TUFF uses the word ‘repository’ to describe this collection of pirated articles, as if their intention is to continue stealing without limit. There is additional evidence that suggests TUFF also used other methods to distribute stolen content, which would mean the articles currently on their website may only represent a fraction of the crimes committed.

It is ironic that cogitatio exasperans means ‘thought provoking’ in Latin. It is safe to assume that nobody at TUFF considered the legal and moral implications of what they were doing. Their website explicitly claims copyright over its contents, and the articles they stole culminate with warnings saying they do not represent the opinion of TUFF, but they took no heed of the fact that each of those articles is the legal property of somebody, irrespective of whether the owners put them on public display.

A counter on TUFF’s own website says that the content they stole from Commsrisk received 125 views.

Each of those views should have occurred at this website, not at TUFF’s website. If that was not bad enough, TUFF literally turned the Commsrisk article into a neatly formatted PDF document, which was also available for download from this URL on the TUFF domain. Presumably TUFF created the PDF version so members would find it easier to distribute by email, causing further immeasurable damage.

Copyright theft is not a victimless crime. Objective data suggests Commsrisk is one of the most popular websites for telecoms risk professionals globally. Since the beginning of the year Commsrisk has been read in 151 different countries; I doubt any residents of South Sudan are reading TUFF’s website either. TUFF did not steal because of some altruistic desire to promote Commsrisk, the Guardian, or the New York Daily News. They stole because they wanted to supply content to their members but did not want to pay for the creation of that content. Nobody in TUFF has reason to believe Commsrisk needs or wants their ‘help’ to reach a larger audience.

None of Commsrisk’s advertisers benefit from the selfish actions of a TUFF freeloader who thinks their job involves reading other people’s work and then pressing ctrl-c and ctrl-v in quick succession. The advertisers on this website, all of whom contribute to the collective fight against fraud, would like the readers of Commsrisk articles to click upon the adjacent adverts. They will receive fewer clicks if the most popular Commsrisk articles are ripped off by rival websites.

Commsrisk recently engaged the services of an award-winning journalist, Marianne Curphey, to bolster our output, but I do not remember anyone at TUFF offering to make a financial contribution towards the income Marianne deserves for her work. Will TUFF be stealing her words too, whilst expecting Commsrisk advertisers to pay her wages?

To make matters worse, countless anti-fraud professionals will have consumed the content stolen by TUFF but seemingly failed to warn Commsrisk or TUFF of obvious copyright violations. This behavior reflects very poorly on professionals expected to assist the enforcement of the law.

I have written again, and again, and again about copyright abuses by rogue elements claiming to be experts in telecoms risk management. Whenever I challenge copyright thieves I get fobbed off with the same worthless excuses: I didn’t know I was breaking any laws; it wasn’t clear that anyone owned the copyright; I’m just trying to help people. How many times do professionals need to be told the law before they can be expected to behave professionally?

Now I intend to make an example of TUFF because the rot needs to stop somewhere. They describe themselves as a “forum of trust”, and boast of having a reputation where telco members can “identify and address those issues facing the telecom industry in tackling fraud and crime”. They also claim to have “provided expertise to Police and other organisations” and created “a basic learning tool that enables non-telecom personnel to better understand and therefore identify how such crime is committed”. If your reputation is based on understanding the laws that matter to telcos, then your reputation deserves the consequences of flagrantly breaking those laws.

Serious questions need to be asked about TUFF’s competence to provide professional training if they do not even know the most basic fact of UK and international copyright law, as expressed by this advice from the UK government:

Using someone’s trade mark, patent, copyright or design without their permission is known as ‘IP infringement’ and could lead to a fine, prison or both.

Copyright abuse costs telcos millions of dollars as well as picking the pockets of journalists, storywriters and artists. That is why the “Get It Right” campaign, which is backed by UK telcos and the UK government, has sent one million warning emails to suspected copyright infringers. The scale of the financial harm done to telcos by copyright abusers explains why the UK’s Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT) lists BT, Virgin Media and Sky amongst its members. Protecting the interests of workers in a modern information economy is the reason the European Commission made stronger copyright enforcement central to their vision of a digital single market. Do the ‘experts’ at the Telecommunications UK Fraud Forum know nothing of this? If so, they are unfit to do their jobs.

Even somebody who is completely ignorant of the law can tell that copying somebody else’s work without permission is morally wrong. A 7 year old can be taught to respect copyright. This is why I draw the line at TUFF’s flagrant abuse of the law, and demand that they:

  • issue an apology addressed to me and to their other victims, which must also be circulated to all TUFF members;
  • provide financial compensation for the loss to Commsrisk and its advertisers;
  • discipline all TUFF staff responsible for breaking the law; and
  • revise TUFF training materials to ensure they explain the basic principles of intellectual property law, as relevant to modern telcos.

I know what you are probably thinking. You think TUFF will laugh this off, ignore the demands, and continue as if no harm was done to anyone. That is what plenty of crooks and plagiarists have done before. But this time I have an opportunity to make a real example of some people who cannot hide from their wrongdoing. Instead of sparing embarrassment, this incident can and should be turned into a teachable moment for other telco professionals who exhibit a delinquent attitude to intellectual property.

If TUFF does not take adequate action, I guarantee I will be raising their brazen flouting of the law not just in court, but also with every business that pays them membership fees. And whilst telcos may not choose to fight for the reform of a decrepit association whose understanding of the telecoms sector has not progressed since the late 1990’s, they will think twice about purchasing training from anti-crime ‘experts’ who are ignorant of the one crime that big telco-media conglomerates care most about.

Update 13:00 UTC 11th March 2019: TUFF has removed the copyright infringing articles that were previously made available on their Cogitatio Exasperans webpage.

Eric Priezkalns
Eric Priezkalns
Eric is the Editor of Commsrisk. Look here for more about the history of Commsrisk and the role played by Eric.

Eric is also the Chief Executive of the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG), a global association of professionals working in risk management and business assurance for communications providers.

Previously Eric was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and he has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and other telcos. He was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.