Another Round of Whac-A-Mole

US regulator proposes blocking spam calls by default

On Wednesday, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced a proposal that would allow phone service providers to better tackle spam calls. If it goes ahead, carriers would be able to automatically block these unwanted calls. At present, subscribers have to be aware of and opt into call-blocking features. The ruling would also clear the path for carriers to stop calls from numbers that aren’t on their customers’ contacts list, with their permission.

In November 2018, FCC chairman Ajit Pai asked carriers to roll out STIR and SHAKEN authentication protocols by the end of 2019. When carriers didn’t move fast enough, Mr Pai sounded them off a second time in February 2019.

But despite all efforts to date, the number of automated and spam calls has only risen. In 2018, 48 billion such calls were made in the US, responsible for about half of all calls made. The US congress has been trying to regulate telemarketers for decades but even a series of new laws couldn’t deter so-called robocallers. Regulations are, of course, meaningless to fraudulent callers, and most technologies employed so far to control unwanted calls have been circumvented by the perpetrators. Addressing this problem has been a non-stop game of Whac-A-Mole.

US carriers are beginning to use standards known as STIR and SHAKEN, short for Secure Telephone Identity Revisited and Signature-Based Handling of Asserted Information Using Tokens (see Peer Pressure). It’s hoped that the new protocols will do more than any in the past to slash automated calls. The underlying technology is a pair of network protocols that use digital certificates to ensure calls don’t come from spoofed numbers. Many spam calls appear to be from numbers that look familiar or safe to the receiver, even if they originate overseas.

But STIR and SHAKEN only let service providers identify when a call is from a real number, not when it’s from a spammer. And even then, the call has to be connecting two networks that have partnered to use the authentication protocols. When this happens, users will see something like “Caller verified” on the screen, providing some level of assurance that the number is authentic. For other incoming calls, “suspicious” or “unverified” would be shown.

Carriers have held off on implementing tough call-blocking methods until now, as it has been unclear if those tools were legal under FCC rules. By proposing a sterner approach and easing their fears, the FCC is giving carriers more power in the fight against nuisance calls.

Federal commissioners are expected to vote on the measure at a meeting on 6 June 2019. Even if the proposal gets the green light from the FCC, it’ll take time for carriers to develop and implement solutions. And even then, there’s a feeling of “been there, done that”.