Google Voice Redefining Idle
I'm really not a fan of basically anything from Google these days. While I was once an Android and Chromebook user with a Google Home Mini and Google WiFi, I've since done a 180 and cut almost every Google product out of my life simply because I don't enjoy how invasive their products tend to be. Google Maps is terrific, for example, but I don't think that's worth giving what amounts to an advertising company detailed tracking information about everywhere that I go.
That being said, there are a handful of Google products I still use, albeit with slight modifications from my previous behavior. One example is Google Voice. One of the things I find most unpleasant in my life is having to speak on the phone; I really dislike having phone conversations and ultimately strive to treat my phone as a miniature tablet in my pocket which is incapable of making or receiving phone calls. In order to facilitate that, I try to avoid giving out my actual phone number where possible. If my real phone number rings, I want it to be a call that I actually need to answer. For example, it should be from work, family, friends, etc. I don't want spam calls coming to my actual number.
To help me with this endeavor, I use the Google Voice number I created more than a decade ago when I moved to a new state. I initially created the number because I was looking for a new job, and I wanted a number in the same area code. This was well before almost anyone was okay with the idea of working remotely, and I found that I had much better success in applying for positions if my number appeared local. Times have changed quite a bit since then, but I've still always kept the same number active as something that I can give out for times when I have to provide a phone number but don't necessarily want to give my real one.
I keep my Google Voice number completely segmented from my actual number in that I don't even have what it receives forward anywhere; Google Voice is the first and last stop for it. I also don't install the Google Voice app on my phone; I typically log in to the web app once or twice a week to check what junk that number received and see if anything is legitimate. A solid 99% of the time it's not.
Are You Still Watching?
In what I can only describe as Google's nod to Netflix, I receive this message about once a year:
To keep things as complicated as possible, this doesn't occur once a year. The last time I received it was January of 2022. I'm now receiving it again in October of 2022. While I check the number regularly, I don't actively send anything from it. To Google, however, this doesn't count as “using” the account. To me, this is pure madness for a few reasons.
My biggest issue is that Google defines usage as making calls or sending messages:
If you’d like to keep your Google Voice number [number removed], you will need to make calls or send text messages by November 7, 2022 by logging in to your account or using the Google Voice app on Android or iOS.
I very intentionally don't have the Google Voice app installed on any of my devices because I'm not interested in feeding data to Google, but I log in to the web app once a week to check for any missed calls or messages. For anything legitimate, I'll call or text back from my actual number. However, that isn't enough to Google; Google needs me to generate activity in order to count as active. So I have an SMS thread with a friend of mine that is literally just me saying something to the effect that I'm only sending a message to keep my Google Voice account active. To highlight how ridiculous this is, my friend replied to today's message with:
You gonna turn off my calendar feature cause I haven't created an event on it in a while?
Seems like a bit of a jump to assume that because I haven't created a new event in a while, I'm not using the product... especially when I know a company like Google is keeping tabs on exactly how frequently I access the service. The big difference between Google Voice and Google Calendar, of course, is that the calendar is associated with my email account while Google Voice requires a phone number. But is it so different? They wouldn't allow someone else to make a new calendar with my address, right?
The Yahoo Scenario
Readers old enough may recall a shit-storm Yahoo caused back in 2013 when they decided they were going to take idle email addresses and put those back into the available pool of addresses which could be used for new accounts. The backlash was immediate and intense, to the point where Yahoo decided to scrap what was a supremely terrible decision.
The big issue at hand was the fact that anyone who was able to lay claim to a previously leveraged email address would be able to receive any emails which had been destined for it. If you think about the context of old newsletters, it's not a particularly big deal. However, if you think about anything sensitive, things can quickly start to become more dire. Within the context of a phone number, that seems even worse. Phone numbers are often used as a fairly shitty form of 2FA, and criminals go to great lengths to perform SIM swapping attacks in order to reset accounts. If Google is going to allow for numbers to be re-used, someone just has to get lucky for them to be able to access a treasure trove of data from someone else.
The natural counter-argument is that if something is important, the user will be getting messages from their Google Voice account... so it won't be considered idle. However, remember that for Google, only sending messages means you're using the account. Receiving them doesn't matter. A great example of where this may come into play is something like Namecheap, a domain registrar which I would 100% recommend avoiding. Their only 2FA option is via SMS. So if you were to set up Google Voice for it, you may get a few messages when buying a domain, logging in to make your initial DNS changes, etc. Then you may not use it for another year or more depending on how long your renewal is. In that time, Google could expire the number, meaning that not only could you not log in to your account, but someone else may be able to do so instead if they get access to the number.
Ultimately, having a phone number that isn't my real number can be a pretty big boon for keeping the amount of spam blowing up my phone to a more manageable level. However, I feel like using Google Voice for anything actually intended to be important is a bit like taking your digital life into your hands. While it's easy to think that you'll definitely log in to the account and be able to send something in order to keep the account from being treated as idle, the right set of circumstances could easily alter that. While I'll continue to keep my Google Voice number active as a bit of a trash receptacle for phone calls, it's definitely not something to treat as reliable. I'm just curious how long it will be before I receive yet another message informing me that my account will expire in 30 days.