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FTC's robocall-blocking contest yields tech winners

WInning proposals focus on using technology to create caller blacklists and whitelists

Two people will share a US$50,000 prize from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission for the best idea to block illegal robocalls from reaching the owners of mobile and wired phones.

Serdar Danis and Aaron Foss will each receive $25,000 for their Robcall Challenge proposals, both of which focus on intercepting and filtering out illegal prerecorded calls using technology to blacklist robocaller phone numbers and to whitelist numbers from wanted callers.

Both proposals would filter out unapproved robocallers using a CAPTCHA-style test to prevent illegal calls from ringing through to a user, the FTC said Tuesday.

The FTC opened the Robocall Challenge in Challenge.gov in late 2012, and in three months, received nearly 800 proposals.

In addition to Danis and Foss, Google's Daniel Klein and Dean Jackson received the Robocall Challenge Technology Achievement Award in the contest. Klein and Jackson offered a proposal titled "Crowd-Sourced Call Identification and Suppression."

That prize, open to organizations with 10 or more employees, offered no cash award.

The FTC encourages private industry to take inspiration from the top proposals in the contest and move forward with new products to protect consumers from robocalls, said Charles Harwood, acting director of FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.

While the agency can't officially endorse the proposals, "we do endorse the use of technology ingenuity to protect consumer privacy and prevent fraud," he said during a press conference. "I hope industry will take up the next challenge of bringing to market products incorporating the ideas of our winners."

Danis' 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' proposal, called "Nomorobo," is cloud-based and would use so-called simultaneous ringing, which allows incoming calls to be routed to a second telephone line. This second line would identify and hang up on illegal robocalls before they could ring through to the user.

The proposal from Klein and Jackson would involve using automated algorithms that identify spam callers.

The proposals in the contest are available in a Challenge.gov submissions gallery.

Robocalls from automated calling systems are illegal in the U.S. unless the recipient agrees to receive the calls. But telephone spammers are using caller ID spoofing technology and other means to skirt current methods of blocking automated calls, Harwood said.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.


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