back to article FTC splits $50,000 robocall killing tech prize

The Federal Trade Commission is awarding $25,000 apiece to two inventors who have come up with methods to defeat the hated robocaller, and has tipped its hat to Google for also putting in a good suggestion. Last October, the FTC announced it would offer $50,000 for workable solutions from individuals or companies with less …


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  1. JeffyPooh

    Brilliant ideas...

    Automatic and crowd-sourced White/Black lists.

    They brilliant ideas seem vaguely familiar...

    20 October 2012:

    It's a monumentally stupid contest...

    "In addition to the technical measures that could be implemented by the Telcos (described above), the solutions at the individual subscriber level are kind-of duh-obvious.

    A $50 pico-PBX like gadget, typically installed in the basement, optionally Internet enabled. It eats the first ring (silent) and then examines the incoming Caller ID. White-Listed CallerIDs (family, friends, etc. and perhaps any dialed-out numbers auto added) go straight through on the 2nd ring. Black-Listed CallerIDs (or CallerIDs with Black-Listed formats) are automatically dealt with, optionally instant answer+hang-up or toyed with to waste their bandwidth). Blocked or Unknown CallerIDs get sent to an audio Captcha, and then either rung through or sent to voice mail. Area Codes can be White- or Black-listed. Sent to voice mail should be the default for unknowns.

    Time rules can be applied, knowing that most spam happens at supper time. Rules can be tightened at midnight to dawn.

    The system would benefit from a PA system to announce the CallerID in cases where the system concludes that some human interruption might be required. But the general rule is silent performance, the rings don't even get through in most cases.

    Voice recognition (Internet powered) would enable a butler-like Q&A by the PBX robot asking "Who would you like to speak to?", and connecting those knowing a valid name (already having passed the CallerID-reasonableness test).

    The Internet connection would enable a rich GUI and would - of course - permit crowd-sourced Black-Lists.

    All of this could also be implemented at your Telco's local 'Central Office', but one time $50 gadget purchase might be a lot cheaper than $8 a month forever.

    At the telco, lessons can be learned from Google's Gmail spam filter - effectively overseeing the "crowd" makes it essentially perfect. Any line making hundreds of calls should be automatically Black-Listed unless authorized in advance. It should be an extra feature to be able to make more than X hundred outgoing calls a week. Control it at the source with licenses for such outgoing-heavy accounts.

    I consider all the above solution contributions to be trivially obvious. That's why the contest is so incredibly stupid. It's a solved problem already. The issue is the willingness to solve it.

    Where do I pick up my cheque? Doh, I'm not an American."

    1. Alan Brown Silver badge

      Re: Brilliant ideas...

      Indeed it's already been solved. My PBX/Wlan/DSL router already does most of this and I've never bothered putting up a capcha type challenge because if I don't know who's calling I generally don't want to talk to them anyway.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I hope the explanations given aren't what these things really are

    A black/white list. Yes, that's great. The robocalls I get sometimes originate from a specific number (anyone in the US familiar with calls from "CARD SERVICES"?) but sometimes use a different number every time. That's trivial to do since it is trivial to spoof caller ID.

    If a lot of people start using blacklists they'll all spoof their numbers. If people start using whitelists, they better know the numbers of everyone they want calling them, and never get a call from an unknown number, like their credit card company telling them they've suspended your account for security reasons because you did something unexpected, like use it. Spoofing ANI is much harder than spoofing caller ID, but end consumers don't have access to ANI and never will.

    Now if it was done in the cloud, as in the second suggestion, then maybe ANI could be used. But somehow I'll bet the phone companies will figure out a way to charge us a lot of money for the privilege, and doing so would risk unmasking callers who wish to and need to remain anonymous (women's shelters etc.)

    The captcha thing is great, except if the automated systems I get stuck in voicemail hell with can (theoretically) understand what I say, then why can't they understand what buttons the captcha is telling them to push? If the captcha says "what is 37x134?" then hook it to Wolfram Alpha, and answering the question would have a better chance of proving one is NOT human given the poor state of arithmetic ability in the public.

    Every once in a while I register for a new forum somewhere and have to do a captcha. I find I have to refresh it a half dozen times on average before I get one I know I'll be able to handle. They've been forced to make them so hard that humans can barely manage them. I don't know how they'll do that over the phone....have someone with a really thick foreign accent tell you what buttons to push, and you can hit '*' to have it repeated in a different accent until you get one you can understand? Too bad I guess if someone from London gets instructions in a Cajun accent, or a guy from Chicago gets instructions in a Welsh accent!

    1. JeffyPooh

      Re: I hope the explanations given aren't what these things really are

      It would be trivial to come up with a similar list of objections for developments like, oh, the automobile, or indoor plumbing, or fire, or The Wheel.

      Systems do not need to be perfect to be perfectly effective.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    So my idea of just shooting the feckers was rejected? Bummer....

  4. Androgynous Cupboard Silver badge

    Only in America

    Or you could just require the fixed line carriers to enforce the CallerID of any calls originating from their network, and then enforce legislation banning robocalls, with a regulator - say, like Ofcom but a bit less shit - to fine abuses.

    Or would that upset the free market purists?

    1. Alan Brown Silver badge

      Re: Only in America

      Ofcom won't enforce that here. (BT does for its ISDN PRIs). It's possible the FCC might float this but I can see the telcos playing chicken little.

      It's already a criminal offence in the USA to spoof CallerID on marketing calls, as well as using robocallers (with a very limited set of exceptions). If they put some effort into tracking down the culprits and used legal powers relating to confiscation of everything under criminal gains it'd be a lot harder for these operators to continue operating.

      1. Peter Simpson 1

        Re: Only in America

        Would it even be *possible* to spoof caller ID. Seems like it should be under the control of the carrier to whose network you are connected.

        //missing option: "press 3 to deliver a lethal shock to the caller"

        1. h3

          Re: Only in America

          Might as well just use a whistle sound seems similarly effective.

  5. cs94njw
    Thumb Up

    Respect to Google. Would be an interesting model if phone calls, emails, text messages, etc, were all handled in exactly the same way.

    You could keep a history of phone calls, report spam phone calls, add a new contact to your phone, etc. Hang on - they haven't made a Google Landline phone yet?

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