Valentine’s Day is a high-pressure event dreaded by millions—precisely the type of holiday you may not want to relive, unless you sell flowers for a living. But that’s exactly what happened to many people across the United States on Thursday, when they awoke to find that their phones had suddenly sent or received text messages originally intended to be sent around February 14. The problem appears to have affected a wide range of devices and carriers, and has since been resolved, according to Sprint and T-Mobile. AT&T and Verizon did not respond to a request for comment.
A number of people whose phones apparently sent the text messages reported they couldn’t see them on their own phones, leading them to wonder whether they had been hacked or if they were experiencing some other security problem. “Someone texted my wife using my phone number. The text does not show up in my outbox. How do I stop this,” one Reddit user asked. “Why did my phone send a text without me knowing?????” another person on Reddit posted.
Other people reported awkward text interactions with people they’d otherwise lost contact with. “Y’all… my damn phone apparently delivered a text to my ex at 5am this morning that was supposed to be sent in FEBRUARY. The universe wants me to fail,” a woman named Jamie said on Twitter.
A spokesperson for Sprint says the issue was caused by a maintenance update made to part of the “messaging platforms of multiple carriers in the US,” and has since been fixed. The problem “caused some customers to have older text messages resent to their devices. The issue was resolved not long after it occurred. We apologize for any confusion this may have caused.” It’s not clear what, exactly, that means. The spokesperson did not respond to questions asking why these particular texts were affected.
T-Mobile had a slightly different—or at least less complete—explanation for the glitch. “This is not a T-Mobile issue, it’s a third-party vendor issue that also affected other networks,” a spokesperson said in an email. “We’re aware of this and it is resolved.” T-Mobile did not clarify what vendor may have been responsible.
Syed Rafiul Hussain, a mobile standards security researcher at Purdue University, theorizes the issue may have happened when carriers were doing maintenance testing or stress testing using previously sent data or old messages. “But the messages were mistakenly sent to the real users instead of the virtual testing devices,” he says. Hussain thinks data from Valentine’s Day may have been chosen because it was a representative sample containing lots of different types of SMS data, including text, audio, images, and videos. “Or maybe some users reported missing SMSs on Valentine’s Day and a third party is still looking into that. But this is all speculation,” he says.
Last month, all four of the major US wireless carriers announced they had agreed to work together to develop a new system to replace SMS, based on the Rich Communication Service standard. Carriers hope it will make texting a more seamless experience and add features like better group chats. As part of the rollout, AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, and T-Mobile plan to launch a new RCS Android messaging app next year. It’s not clear that the new system had anything to do with Thursday’s glitch, but hopefully it will be less susceptible to the same types of problems.
The unexpected text messages caused confusion, embarrassment, and pain. “My sister got one from our mom who died this summer,” one woman said on Twitter. The incident is a reminder of how our most intimate communications rely on a fragile network that’s decades-old, and highly susceptible to something as mundane as a maintenance update.
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