Federal Trade Commission Announces Winners of Anti-Robocall Challenge

By Peter Bernstein April 02, 2013

We all hate those noxious automated calls we get called Robocalls. You know the ones. They are the prerecorded automated calls that seize our phone lines until they have completed their unsolicited and unwanted messages even when our phone numbers are on the “Do Not Call” list. Policy makers have been equally irritated about such calls for years. 

Out of frustration with a torrent of consumer complaints the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC)—as part of its ongoing campaign against illegal, prerecorded telemarketing calls which includes enforcement efforts which have stopped companies responsible for billions of illegal robocalls— contracted with ChallengePost in August 2012 to administer a challenge and award the prizes to anyone with a useful means to stop the madness. The good news is, the judges have picked their winners.

 RoboCall Challenge winners and their proposals

The judges for the FTC Robocall Challenge, FTC Chief Technologist Steve Bellovin, FCC Chief Technologist Henning Schulzrinne, and Kara Swisher, Co-Executive Editor of All Things D, selected  two winners out of the over 800 eligible submissions. They could not decide which one was best so the $50,000 prize for Best Overall Solution was declared a tie and the prize money will be evenly split.   

Serdar Danis and Aaron Foss will each receive $25,000 for their proposals, which both focus on intercepting and filtering out illegal prerecorded calls using technology to “blacklist” robocaller phone numbers and “whitelist” numbers associated with acceptable incoming calls. In making the announcement the FTC also noted that both proposals also would filter out unapproved robocallers using a CAPTCHA-style test to prevent illegal calls from ringing through to a user.

Danis and Foss were not alone. There was a category for organizations that employ 10 or more people who qualified for a non-monetary Robocall Challenge Technology Achievement Award. The winners were Daniel Klein and Dean Jackson from Google for their Crowd-Sourced Call Identification and Suppression solution.

“The solutions that our winners came up with have the potential to turn the tide on illegal robocalls, and they show the wisdom of tapping into the genius and technical expertise of the public,” said Charles Harwood, Acting Director, FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “We’re hoping these winning proposals find their way to the marketplace soon, and will provide relief to millions of American consumers harassed by these calls.”

Danis’s proposal, titled Robocall Filtering System and Device with Autonomous Blacklisting,Whitelisting, GrayListing and Caller ID Spoof Detection,would analyze and block robocalls using software that could be implemented as a mobile app, an electronic device in a user’s home, or a feature of a provider’s telephone service.

Foss’s proposal, called Nomorobo, is a cloud-based solution that would use “simultaneous ringing,” which allows incoming calls to be routed to a second telephone line. In the Nomorobo solution, this second line would identify and hang up on illegal robocalls before they could ring through to the user. Google’s Klein and Jackson, like the other solutions, would involve using automated algorithms that identify “spam” callers.

The judges adhered to a strict set of weighted criteria based on technical considerations alone which was as follows:

  • Does it work? (50 percent
  • Is it easy to use? (25 percent
  • Can it be rolled out? (25 percent)

The FTC while it does not have the power to force telecom service providers and other stakeholders to adopt any of the solutions is doing its best to encourage industry players to contact the winners. It also is encouraging all challenge entrants to push ahead and has given them visibility on submission gallery at robocall.challenge.gov.  The FTC is further urging all participants to continue the conversation by publishing a more detailed, public overview of their ideas on the FTC.gov website.

For those who did not win they can take solace in the fact that not only do they now have visibility for their ideas but also in the fact that the FTC staff compiled several tips from these submissions, and with the help of the Government Services Administration, produced this new video for consumers:

In the release revealing the winners, the Commission explicitly made clear that this is a milestone and not the end of the road. “Commission staff persists in aggressive law enforcement, and continues to work with industry insiders and other experts to identify potential solutions. For more information about all of the FTC’s robocall initiatives, see www.ftc.gov/robocalls.” 

And, as you might expect, there was a disclaimer: “By selecting winners, the FTC isn’t endorsing any particular products or services. Before implementing any service involving personal information, companies should conduct a thorough privacy review and must consider and comply with the federal and state privacy, consumer protection, and other laws that may apply.”

Will this be the end of illegal robocalls? Unfortunately, the answer to that is problematic since a lot of things have to go right including service providers finding a solution and then putting it in their networks. In addition, the nature of telephone abuse is morphing as VoIP becomes pervasive which gives telemarketers the opportunity to flood another channel we might choose as our primary means of voice communications. It is one reason why the Google proposal sounds interesting. 

I also believe, and did not submit an entry for the challenge, that a lawsuit against a robocall that seizes a line and prevents someone in an emergency from being able to dial 911 for assistance might be a very powerful disincentive to those originating the calls. At the end of the day this is all about money, and so long as calling is cheap, and some people continue to respond, we will all continue to be interrupted (I understand but hate that it is always during dinner hours) whether we are on lists not to be contacted or not. At least the network-based approaches are likely to be more effective than those we might have to do ourselves, but don’t hold your breath on this. However, kudos to the FTC for putting up the fight and for being creative about spurring innovation and encouraging those with solutions to follow through on their ideas.     

Edited by Amanda Ciccatelli
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