Commentary

And The Winners Are ... Consumers, FTC Hopes

Maybe, just maybe, in the halcyon future when one of the three winners of the Federal Trade Commission’s “Robo Challenge” competition is actually protecting heads of households across the Consumer Republic, you may really, really receive “your final notice as it relates to the financial stimulus.” 

“Because the commission’s ‘do-not-call’ registry was simply unable to handle the deluge of robocalls with caller-ID spoofing, the FTC took to the private sector to dream up technological solutions to block these unwanted nuisances on both mobile and landline phones,” David Kravets reports on Wired. Yesterday it unveiled three winning concepts –- two from individuals and one from two engineers from Google -– “and urged enterprising companies to try to make them a market reality.”

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There were more than 800 entrees to the competition, which the FTC announced last fall. Abstracts for all of them, along with viewers’ comments, are posted here for the curious. According to acting consumer protection bureau head Chuck Harwood, robocalls are the most common complaint the agency receives.

“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,” Harwood said. “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.”

“They might, but it will take months,” Edward Wyatt reports in the New York Times. Harwood said the FTC “was not endorsing any commercial products, and the inventors will have to deal with intellectual property issues and concerns about privacy and data security.”

“If some company really can stop robocalls in their tracks, they could very well make a boatload of cash,” Jon Brodkin comments on Ars Technica. Ya think?

The two individual winners, Aaron Foss and Serdar Danis, will split the $50,000 prize money offered by the FTC. The two Google engineers, Daniel Klein and Dean Jackson, won the “Technology Achievement Award,” which sounds like something spit out by a laser printer and made official with an embossed seal.

Danis’ “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,” Grant Gross reports on IT World.

Foss gets the totally non-remunerative Marketing Daily Award for Clever Branding for his entry, dubbed Nomorobo, which is explained by a YouTube video on a dedicated website. He said he was eager to enter the contest when he read about it in October -- in part because he hates robocalls just as much as anyone else, Hayley Tsukayama reports in the Washington Post.

“I know how annoying they are,” Foss said. “They always interrupt you when you’re trying to get things done.”

In brief, Nomorobo is a cloud-based system that uses “simultaneous ringing” to route calls to a second telephone line that summarily execute robocalls before they interrupt cocktail hour.

“My initial reaction was skepticism, since it appeared that all the solutions are based on the call’s Caller ID number (CID) and apparently could be duped by ‘spoofing,’” which is “the art of using a false CID to get around the system,” Jim Handy, an industry analyst who covers semiconductors, writes on Forbes.com. But one of the judges told him that each of the winners has a proprietary solution to that issue. 

Foss later admitted to Handy that a wily “spoofed CID” may slip through the defenses now and again, but “the system’s dynamic nature allows it to adapt to changes in a way that circumvents such issues for the majority of robocalls.” 

Google’s Klein and Jackson’s proposal is called “Crowd-Sourced Call Identification and Suppression” and uses -- what else? -- algorithms to identify spam callers.

“The recommended system … would provide a means whereby users can make reports of spam calls as well as ask if others have reported a caller as a spammer,” they write. “While the first few people called would get spammed, after a sufficient number of reports are made, further calls would be blocked.”

What greater glory than to be spammed so that others might live spam free? Press “Like” if you agree.

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