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Virgin voicemail let anyone listen in. Did Australians care?

A month ago Virgin Mobile had a privacy failure that proves we really don't care about voicemail.

"If it had been Telstra..."

When Virgin Mobile had a major privacy scare with its voicemail system a month ago, we felt it was important to cover the issue. These words rang through my mind as we worked to ensure customers were aware of the problem.

People were randomly able to access the voicemails of other customers instead of their own. "Random" is weird, it isn't a hack, but it still means privacy has been breached. Voicemail can be deeply personal. It can reveal a lot of private information.

Virgin Mobile logo

Add to that people caring about privacy more than ever (cue a post-Snowden reference here), and this could be seen as Virgin's most significant security incident of 2016.

But perhaps the incident really just showed that if anything makes us not care about our privacy, it's how little we care about our voicemail. More on that shortly.

If it had been Telstra? Every major news outlet would have covered the incident. CNET led the news and Lifehacker confirmed the problem itself in a follow up. Beyond that, nada.

Is the fact Virgin Mobile isn't one of the "big three" telcos a good reason to not worry about its customer privacy? Do the little guys get a free pass because they have fewer customers? Or because they're cheaper? Why do we hold Telstra's feet to the fire over every little problem but an incident like this at Virgin can pass unnoticed?

For those who do care, we followed up with Virgin a week after the original incident, when we were told an investigation was "ongoing", and we've again been in touch with Virgin more than a month after the incident. Virgin Mobile confirmed the investigation into the incident has concluded with the following statement:

"Last month's issue with Virgin Mobile's voicemail service was caused by a technology upgrade error. This has since been rectified and customers were affected for a brief period of time. We are notifying affected customers directly. We take the privacy and security of our customers very seriously."

Note that Virgin told us it was "notifying affected customers directly". However, when we checked with some customers who had encountered the problem, they told us they had received no information from the operator. We double-checked when people were being contacted and were told it would happen early in the first week of October. That's right now. After a further check, the customers we've spoken to have still received no updates.

If it had been Telstra? It would be unacceptable to not communicate with customers around a widespread incident in some way within six weeks of the incident occurring.

In reality, most customers wouldn't have noticed the incident took place. Many might be surprised to learn it happened when Virgin finally does get in touch (we're still keeping track, Virgin, we'll know if you don't). And most are probably not going to care. Because this whole thing seems to emphasise how dead voicemail is as a service.

Who wants to leave a message that might never be checked? Who wants to dial into a special number to listen to a list of messages, half of which are just the sound of a phone clicking off as the person hangs up? Personally, my voicemail message says that you really shouldn't leave me a voice message if you want to get my attention.

Back when Apple tried to update voicemail by introducing iPhone Visual Voicemail, Australian telcos took an age to support it. Vodafone added support when the iPhone 3Gs arrived. Telstra charges extra. Optus never bothered.

Voicemail is on life support. It still suits some businesses, particularly the likes of tradespeople. But for most of us, email, SMS and other messaging systems have left it to gather digital dust.

Maybe a concerning privacy scare like this one is a good reason to bite the bullet and turn off your voicemail for good.