Tech’s Failure

Phil Baker / March 17th, 2017

We like to think technology can solve our pressing problems but there’s one problem it has not been able to solve. It’s a problem that, if solved, would have one of the most positive impacts on our daily lives. No, it’s not related to health care, it’s not a new self-driving car, nor does it solve any life and death issue. It’s the problem of robocalls.

This is an issue we all understand, all experience, and all universally hate, regardless of political affiliation. If a politician made this his goal to solve and succeeded, that person could be re-elected in a landslide.

Yet still, after years and years of this intrusion on our privacy, it keeps getting worse. While originally a problem just with landlines, it’s now pervasive on cellphones and effects more than 250 million of us in the U.S. — essentially everyone with a phone.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, calls are already up 50% this year from four billion last year. That’s four billion interruptions that generally come at the most inopportune times. And few of the calls bring us any benefits. They’re either scams, solicitations, or some attempt to steal our money, identity, or banking account information. They prey mostly on the elderly and uninformed, yet they can sometimes fool the most knowledgeable among us. And they cost the innocent billions of dollars per year.

Robocalling has brought out the dregs of humanity, with callers impersonating Microsoft telling us our computer is infected, or an IRS agent telling us we need to pay now or go to jail. Robocalling can turn a pleasant evening into an annoying one, with many getting a number of calls throughout the day.

This problem is a demonstration of how technology, as well as our government, has failed us. Technology enabled the robocalling machines and, while politicians wrangle about divisive social issues that affect few, no one tackles a problem millions experience and would all be grateful for it to be solved.

There is little doubt that, with a concerted effort by the cellular providers, the FCC, and even the phone manufacturers, the problem could be solved. I don’t have the solution but it’s not hard to imagine how one could be found by creating a combination of a database, an app and some strong enforcement. Cellular providers and the FCC can identify and filter out calls from certain gateways, authenticate the numbers used for calling, and create a database of bogus numbers.

The Do Not Call List Registry the government created years ago has no enforcement power and many loopholes. It doesn’t work, yet the FCC still has a website that makes you think it does complete with complaint forms to fill out.

CallerID, one of the tools intended to help us screen calls, has been turned on its heads with robocalls now spoofing local numbers and fake identities to make us pick up the call. Many of the calls originate from outside the country where there’s no enforcement. Even legitimate companies, such as Stratics Networks, a company I randomly selected from those offering robocalling services, advertises how their robocalling service can “Assign custom local or toll-free Caller IDs to your broadcast.”

It should be an embarrassment to the industry that, while the FCC and the carriers procrastinate, a small company has found a solution for some situations. Nomorobo has been able to help users who use VoIP calling and/or iPhones significantly reduce the number of robocalls. The company has about 300,000 subscribers who give the company high grades for reducing or eliminated the calls.

Others have tried, including several companies offering hardware solutions (basically a box to screen the incoming number) and allow you to designate it as a robocall to block the number from calling again. But, with numbers changing randomly, these solutions aren’t very good, based on my experiences.

My own solution to eliminate these calls at home is to cancel my wired phone line and switch to VoIP calling, where I’ll have a better chance of screening out these calls.

Now that we have a new head of FCC, let’s see if he can fix this once and for all.

Phil Baker

Phil Baker is a product development expert, author, and journalist covering consumer technology. He has developed scores of products for companies including Apple, Seiko, Polaroid, Barnes & Noble, Polycom, Proxima, ThinkOutside and Pono Music. Phil is the author of “From Concept to Consumer”, a former columnist for the San Diego Transcript, and founder of Techsperts, Inc. You can follow him at www.bakerontech.com.
  • Vadim Dumin

    I assume not picking a call from an unknown number would be a hard solution to this problem. It would be nice if AI instead of a voice mail pre-screened these calls as well.

  • obarthelemy

    Again, it’s not tech. It’s legislation and law enforcement. Tech might be a tool to enforce those (and is, sadly, a tool to worsen the issue, but we get plenty of humanocalls too).

    I’m sure tech is failing in a lot of fields, in a lot of ways. It is neither the cause nor the solution to most problems though. For example, this one.

    • PhilipGBaker

      5 would seem to be a failure of government. As to 2, I think many of us would prefer to pay a yearly fee for an ad-free web.

      • Space Gorilla

        The solution is a better model for advertising. Right now most of the web uses an advertising model that does not respect the reader. It doesn’t have to be that way.

    • Regarding item 5, you mention the carriers are granted use of public utilities and that they have a responsibility towards net neutrality. I agree to a certain extent, but I wonder what responsibility companies like Google (YouTube) and Facebook have, since they are the ones that that are using up the bandwidth without paying anything.

      In the case of roads, governments tax on the purchase of cars and fuel and also have toll roads. I wonder whether something similar for the Internet would be viable so that the ones who make obscene profits from it have to pay the local authorities.

      • obarthelemy

        On the supply side (as opposed to the end-user consumer side), Google FB et al. do pay
        1- for server peering (bandwidth)
        2- for server platforms
        3- for devs admin and support
        4- for customer service

        1- is especially relevant. Consumers pay on one side to be connected to the ‘net, suppliers pay too on the other side for their own connection: they aren’t “not paying anything”. But ISP and carriers, middlemen between the users and the suppliers, are in a monopoly or oligopoly, and are trying to extract rent just for letting the stuff pass through from the backbone (where it is paid for by the suppliers) to the user (who already pays for that)

        That would be fine is the market were free, but it isn’t because it is a) a natural monopoly b) reinforced by huge regulatory barriers to entry carefully erected in no small part via a few billions in political contributions at all levels.

        Edit: regarding the toll roads analogy, highway operators are not into the business of selling cars and zero-rating their own-brand cars.

    • Vadim Dumin

      Regarding 2. Why there is no 3rd way to pay? There is a paid for service model as well. For example Netflix/Apple Music/newspaper subscriptions.

      • obarthelemy

        It does exist, but it’s piecemeal, with a lot of friction, and that limits the appeal so that prices are too high and in the end it’s struggling to be a viable alternative to ad-supported.
        If I subscribed to all the content I’d like, I’d have to pay 6x$100 yearly directly via Visa, plus Patreon another handful of sites… that’s a lot of money and bother.

        • Vadim Dumin

          If we talk about pricing we should compare with alternatives. I would say cable TV is an alternative to all my subscriptions. Right now I pay $30 monthly for Netflix/New York Times/Apple Music and I derive more pleasure from these services and it costs less money than cable TV I used to have. I also occasionally rent movies on iTunes for $4. It is also less money and more convenient than go to the movie theatre.

          I would say that service business is on a right path and as a time goes we might see more aggregation and better prices from it.

  • Glaurung-Quena

    My cell (which I only use to call my spouse when I am away from home and for calling a taxi when I need one) almost never rings except for legitimate wrong numbers, so maybe robocalls to cell lines is a thing in the US but not Canada?

    On our landline, we get one or more spam/scam calls per day. My handling of them is very simple: 99.9% of all robocalls begin with a few moments of silence, then a squawk sound as the line is connected to the next available scammer. Whenever I pick up the phone and hear silence followed by a squawk, I immediately hang up. Blood pressure stays low, time is not wasted.

  • obarthelemy
    • klahanas

      Love. Love. Love it!

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