FTC’s $50,000 Robocall Challenge nets 744 ideas to shut down robocallers

The Federal Trade Commission will now pick best tech to help stop robocall menace

The Federal Trade Commission today said the submission period for its Robocall Challenge had ended and it got 744 new ideas for ways to shut down the annoying automated callers.

The FTC noted that the vast majority of telephone calls that deliver a prerecorded message trying to sell something to the recipient are illegal. The FTC regulates these calls under the Telemarketing Sales Rule and the Challenge was issued to developing technical or functional solutions and proofs of concepts that can block illegal robocalls which despite the agency's best efforts seem to be increasing.

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The FTC Robocall Challenge is now in the hands of the judges which include Steve Bellovin, FTC Chief Technologist; Henning Schulzrinne, Federal Communications Commission Chief Technologist; and Kara Swisher of All Things Digital.

The FTC said the prize will be awarded to an individual, team, or small corporation (10 employees or less) if a solution is developed based on the following criteria:

  • Does it work?: How successful is the proposed solution likely to be in blocking illegal robocalls? Will it block wanted calls? An ideal solution blocks all illegal robocalls and no calls that are legally permitted. (For example, automated calls by political parties, charities, and health care providers, as well as reverse 911 calls, are not illegal robocalls.)
  • How many consumer phones can be protected? What types of phones? Mobile phones? Traditional wired lines? VoIP land lines? Proposals that will work for all phones will be more heavily weighted.
  • Is it easy to use?: How difficult would it be for a consumer to learn to use your solution? How efficient would it be to use your solution, from a consumer's perspective?
  • Are there mistakes consumers might make in using your solution, and how severe would they be?
  • Can it be rolled out?: What has to be changed for your idea to work? Can it function in today's marketplace? (Does it require changes to all phone switches world-wide, and require active cooperation by all of the world's phone companies and VoIP gateways, or can it work with limited adoption?) Solutions that are deployable at once will be more heavily weighted, as will solutions that give immediate benefits with even small-scale deployment
  • Additionally, organizations that employ more than 10 people may compete for the FTC's Technology Achievement Award, which does not include a cash prize.

Among the myriad entries, all of which can be viewed here, include:

  • The EtiQuit product solution provides the User with an opportunity to implement "the rules and conventions governing correct or polite phone call behavior in society in general or in a specific social or professional group or situation." The EtiQuit product solution will block illegal robocalls, unwanted phone calls, unidentified caller phone calls, restricted or blocked phone calls on landline phones, VOIP phones and cellular mobile phones. The EtiQuit product solution utilizes the robocall complaint data provided by the Sponsor to identify and block unwanted phone calls. The EtiQuit product solution will submit updates to the Sponsor's Complaint Data to further identify and enhance existing complaint data by completing a Complaint Data Submit Form to the Sponsor's Website for further evaluation. The EtiQuit product solution will utilize the robocall Allowed Callers Data provided by the Sponsor to identify and allow automated calls by political parties, charities, and health care providers and reverse 911 calls.
  • ATS Network Security Robo Call Block uses two approaches. For "smart" cell phones a downloadable application blocks all calls not in your address book. The user can review all blocked calls to see if the status should change to enter the caller's phone number into their address book. For landlines and Internet telephones a box in series performs the same pass or block functions.
  • Since most, if not all, states already have some form of Do Not Call legislation, why not consolidate these laws into a Federal Do Not Call Registry, initially capitalized with stimulus funding. Furthermore, since this contest has been initiated due to the public outcry of invasion of privacy, then the public should participate in the battle to secure their own privacy.
  • Within the National Do Not Call Registry (NDNCR) program, establish a per-violation financial penalty against any telemarketer, no matter how many telephone numbers it uses to conduct its business. The public at large will be required to screen and report the phone number, time and date of each privacy violation to the NDNCR, using a Hot Line, Internet or Email. This provides a verifiable record of the violation via FCC records, if necessary. At some arbitrary number of reports received, say, 20, establish a 'Beginning Count' for the specific Telemarketing Company. This becomes the '1st Violation' and constitutes the count-up of each individually reported call regardless of the initiating phone number(s) from that Telemarketer. 1st violations will require the guilty telemarketers to pay sufficient fines, say $50,000 - $60,000 sufficient to support staffing of the NDNCR. Additional fines will flow to the General Revenue Fund. Publish a statement, putting all telemarketers on notice that the NDNCR program will begin on a given date. Such date is to be a reasonable time period, say 30 - 60 days. Further, the NDNCR program is to continue for as long as telemarketing violations continue to be reported and for 180 days beyond the last violation. This applies to ALL telemarketers as a class. Alternatively, make the NDNCR program permanent with no specific end date, depending on the general public's response.
  • This proposal consists of three techniques in combination: * Transfer of a monetary deposit using a micropayment service prior to call completion, performed at the Service Provider level transparent to the caller and recipient. If a recipient declares the call to be an unwelcome call, the caller's deposit is forfeit. (Micropayment can be replaced by token exchange for a non-monetary system) * A Subscriber-controlled whitelist allows callers to bypass the deposit requirement. * A Human-interactive proof (HIP) task, suitable for telephone users, defeats automated calls with reasonable caller requirements. These techniques have complementary strengths. This Proposal combines the three techniques for a robust and highly configurable system. Key features of this Proposal are: * Recognizes that there are legitimate uses of bulk calling operations, and such callers are not penalized or encumbered. * Can provide a "guarantee" - the deposit forfeited by the Caller can be a payment to the Recipient, proving a monetary compensation for the unwanted call, and incentivizing the user to take action on unwanted calls. * No change to the act of making a call; the process is transparent to legitimate users. * No change is required on receiving a call - an optional action by the recipient is only taken to indicate that a call was a robocall or other unwelcome call. * This proposal protects legitimate bulk callers and their call recipients from a class of exploits ("honeypot" exploits) - these are actions taken by malicious users to improperly cause others to incur penalties. * No central authority required to determine whether a caller is making unwelcome or illegal calls. No policies to enforce, no costly identity verification or user screening. No outside enforcement mechanism, no judgments to be contested. * Works with traditional phone end user equipment; does not require cell phone or additional phone capability. Changes are at the Service Provider level.

The FTC has also been working with industry insiders and other experts to identify potential solutions. However, current technology still lets shady telemarketers to cheaply autodial thousands of phone calls every minute and display false or misleading caller ID information, the FTC said.

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The agency, which claims it has stopped billions of robocalls in the past couple years,  says a variety of technologies are making it easier for telemarketers to skirt or at least try to get around the law.  The increased use of automated phone call systems that just blast away calls without first screening the Do Not Call registry is one of the main enabling technologies.  The ability to operate such systems via the Internet and hiding or spoofing their location is another problem.

FTC staff expects to announce winners in early April 2013.

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