Here's how Apple, Google, and Microsoft can stop robocalls

In the war against telephone spam, only superior firepower will win. But it will require cooperation between the competing tech superpowers and their clouds in order to do it.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

Robocalls. Oh, do I hate them. You know what I am talking about -- they come in from unidentifiable phone numbers, usually from someone trying to sell you something you don't want, whether it is some kind of insurance scam, credit cards, pain creams, you name it.

And that's if you're lucky to get a human being. I usually get the ones where you pick up the phone, and suddenly you hear the phone dialing another number. Eventually, either a person on the other end picks up or you get a pre-recorded message and voice prompting.

Also: Google, Apple, AT&T, and others join robocall 'strike force'

It's enough to drive you crazy, especially if you get multiple of these things a day.

Even if you have your numbers subscribed to state and federal "Do Not Call" lists, it doesn't help, they still call you.

Playing whack-a-mole

Various anti-spam tools for mobile devices have been devised such as Robokiller, Nomorobo, and Truecaller, which attempt to remedy the situation by using crowdsourcing to create number blacklists and call forwarding so that spam calls are intercepted or dumped into voicemail.

I envision Anti-spam Central Command like NORAD or US Cyber Command. (Image: ZDNet)

The apps are great in theory. The problem is it's like playing whack-a-mole, where as soon as you report one number, a new one comes to harass you, often spoofing completely legitimate numbers. And the reporting process is not really user-friendly either.

It doesn't seem like there is a good solution to this anytime soon. But it is possible to put an end to this once and for all.

The three tech giants of mobile and enterprise computing, Apple, Google, and Microsoft, can solve this problem by creating a special task force that can use the power of their collective user bases through mass crowdsourcing, as well as leveraging their respective VOIP systems to create an alternative call network to the legacy telephone network we have been using for several decades.

Also: Here's everything you can do to stop robocalls CNET

The ultimate big data exercise

I'm proposing creating a tri-party virtual telecom provider, where everything is done via authenticated users and APIs, and where misbehaving participants will be very easy to defeat because access to this network will be controlled directly by the tech titans.

The first step would be to build native and superior anti-spam features into the mobile operating systems themselves, for iOS and Android/Hangouts, and the Microsoft Skype clients for all the platforms.

As of July of 2018, Google has spam alerting and blocking built into its native Phone dialer app but it is hardly better than what exists today in 3rd-party solutions, not all Android phones use it by default, and it doesn't seem to be particularly effective at detecting number spoofing yet.

Still, if you have an Android device, and if you have a different dialer installed, it may be a good idea to switch to the official Phone app instead.

Instead of relying on 3rd-party apps like Robokiller, NoMoRobo, or Truecaller, which have limited support and funding and separate and incomplete databases, Apple and Microsoft need to create anti-spam capability into their native dialers and contact apps, so that users can report an abusive call directly to their respective databases, which the three giants need to agree to share.

Also: What you can do to stop robocalls and spam texts CNET

Having this capability native is important because it allows the three companies to leverage the power of crowdsourcing over hundreds of millions of devices, with a single database that is replicated between the three platforms.

In addition to building the spam reporting and blocking directly into the OSes, all three companies need to staff this task force with people dedicated to maintaining this anti-spam database. And the power of machine learning from Google and Microsoft's respective hyperscale clouds should be used to provide additional intelligence to populate and maintain the databases.

It's the ultimate big data exercise, really, if you consider the sheer volume of calls that go through the telephone network every day.

Anti-spam Central Command

I'm envisioning this as a telephone spam version of NORAD or NATO, with a centralized command center staffed with representatives of the three companies.

Anti-spam Central Command! It will be YUGE. Just think of the mission patch potential.

A centralized telephone anti-spam system that is maintained by Apple, Google and Microsoft would be a significant improvement over what we have now -- but ultimately the issue of fighting robocalls rests with the fact that the legacy telephone system, which is run by the existing telecom providers, is what is broken. And they have no incentive to fix it.

The telephone system will likely be around for a while, if not for the popularity of texting alone -- which is why I am suggesting we protect the mobile devices using an anti-spam system that the telecoms cannot control or easily interfere with. But, ultimately, we need to figure out what to replace telephone numbers with for voice calls.

Also: The inevitable and inescapable rise of robocalls TechRepublic

While a standardized VOIP protocol and network that all the platforms can use is a great idea, the reality is that Apple is going to maintain its own FaceTime and Apple ID network, Google is going to have its own for Google ID and Hangouts, and Microsoft is going to do the same for Microsoft ID/Azure AD, Skype, and Skype for Business.

However, there is no reason why these systems cannot exist independently and interoperate with each other, which is why a secondary mission of Anti-spam Central Command will be to establish VOIP gateway infrastructure so that FaceTime audio calls can be routed to Google Hangouts, and to Microsoft Skype/SfB.

And there's no reason why others could not be allowed to participate, such as Cisco for their UC and PBX systems, Amazon for Alexa/Echo device calling and for Facebook Messenger voice calls as well.


Essentially, this would be a master voice federation of the three tech superpowers. Literally the NATO of VOIP.

And anyone who has an ID on any of those networks should be able to associate that ID with a routable call ID that they can then register for, so they can make calls out-of-network, directly from their dialer/contacts application on their respective mobile device.

Also: 5 ways to block spam calls TechRepublic

Since each ecosystem is administrated by each major technology provider, it would be much easier to police than the telcos, because abuse could be reported instantaneously and representatives of Anti-spam Central Command could then follow up on the offenders -- either give them warnings, timeouts, or removal from the system as required.

But all of this depends on cooperation that does not exist now. However, I think robocalls are so infuriating and such a scourge on our population that this may be the one thing that these tech giants can agree to destroy, together.

Do we need a NATO equivalent to thwarting robocalls? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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