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Google engineers find a way to filter robocalls the way Gmail filters spam

Google engineers find a way to filter robocalls the way Gmail filters spam


Two Google employees were among the winners in the FTC's crowdsourced challenge

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google robocalls

The anti-robocall solution proposed by two Google engineers.

The Federal Trade Commission just announced the three winners of its Robocall Challenge, a contest meant to crowdsource the solution to the robocall scourge that prompts more than 200,000 consumer complaints every month. The first-place award was split between two individuals, programmers Aaron Foss and Serdar Danis. The "technology achievement award," reserved for a submission affiliated with a large company, went to two Googlers, Daniel Klein and Dean Jackson.

"It's really up to the private sector now."

When complaining to the FTC, consumers often wondered why it wasn't possible to screen robocalls with the same effectiveness as Gmail screens spam. Klein and Jackson's solution is not unlike Google's email spam filter, which prompts users to report bogus messages. Their system allows users to instantly report originating phone numbers to an online database; on the other side, phones or external hardware automatically check the database every time a call comes in. It also includes a mechanism that blocks "spoofed" numbers, which obfuscate the true origin of the call, and weighs additional factors such as call volume, frequency, and inbound-to-outbound ratio.

Danis's first-place solution was similar to Google's. He suggested an external device (which could also be implemented as a mobile app or provider feature) that "autonomously compiles whitelisted, blacklisted and graylisted numbers databases." The system also detects whether the caller is using a spoofed number.

Foss's solution, Nomorobo, proposes to automatically hang up on robocallers. When a call comes in, Nomorobo uses conditional call forwarding — a feature most phones already have — to ring simultaneously for the recipient and Nomorobo. Nomorobo picks up first and hangs up on robocallers.

Aaron Foss's proposal.

The initial response to the FTC's cry for help was not encouraging: many of the submissions were technologically thin, duplicative, or overly simplistic, and the entire endeavor seemed to attract a certain type of politically-engaged, stay-at-home crazy person. Stopping robocalls is a difficult problem, as technology has made it easy for spammers and scammers to mass-dial from around the world for pennies. However, the winning proposals offer some hope for those who want to enjoy an uninterrupted dinner.

The FTC received almost 800 submissions, which were judged based on functionality, viability, and ease of use. However, there is no guarantee that these solutions will ever go to market. "It's really up to the private sector now," said Charles Harwood, acting director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection.

Danis and the Googlers were not available for comment, but Foss, a veteran of multiple New York City startups, is committed to ending robocalls for good. He hadn't considered building a robocall blocker until the FTC announced its challenge in October. Now he has decided to use his $25,000 in prize money as seed funding while he looks for investors and partners in the telecom industry. He's hoping to cut deals with major carriers like AT&T as well as newer industry players like Twilio.

"I'm really hoping to circle the wagons and figure out the right way to launch this and get it into the hands of families and individuals as quickly as possible," he told The Verge.

Update: Google has no plans to integrate Klein and Jackson's proposal into Google Voice or otherwise pursue robocall blocking at this time. "Robocalls are unpleasant, and our engineers have some ideas for combating the problem. At this point, it's simply a proposal for the FTC to consider," spokesperson Samantha Smith said in an email.