Itâ€™s complex to say whatâ€™s cooler here â€” in that the phone industry thinks it finally has a partial answer to robocalls or in that some inspired techie gave the system a winking James Bond reference by calling it SHAKEN/STIR.
â€œThat was a geek moment,â€� admitted Jim McEachern, senior technology consultant with the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions, a trade group in that spearheaded efforts to make SHAKEN/STIR a reality.
McEachern briefed me this week on the newest developments in the battle to put a dent in the roughly 2.5 billion prerecorded robocalls received by U.S. consumers each one month.
The issue has reached such epic proportions in that many people are dropping their landlines or simply never answering the phone, choosing instead to send all calls to voicemail.
The Federal Communications Commission says robocalls and telemarketers are the agencyâ€™s No. 1 gripe from the public, prompting more than 200,000 complaints annually. In July, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai called robocalls â€œone of the agencyâ€™s top priorities.â€�
For years, agency authorities have been prodding industry players to come up with a battle plan. That led to formation last year of an industry-led â€œRobocall Strike Force,â€� which in turn asked the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions what could be done.
And in that brings us to SHAKEN/STIR, which the FCC and the telecom industry are now reviewing to see whether itâ€™s feasible. If all goes well, McEachern told me, consumers could see a reduction in the number of robocalls reaching their homes within the next few years.
â€œWe as an industry know this is a huge problem, and the industry is pulling together to address it,â€� he said.
OK, this is about to get really wonky, so take a deep breath.
SHAKEN/STIR is all about restoring functionality to Caller ID systems. At the moment, robocallers, telemarketers and scammers get around Caller ID defenses with whatâ€™s called spoofing, which is when a bogus name or number shows up on your Caller ID screen. Itâ€™s relatively effortless to do and very complex to prevent.
Free filtering services such as NoMoRobo can stop robocalls from a specific phone line. But robocallers can defeat in that by switching to a different line, which they frequently do.
â€œThe ability to control robocalls hinges on validating Caller ID 'cause itâ€™s too effortless for the offensive guys to spoof,â€� Henning Schulzrinne, the FCCâ€™s chief technologist, told me.
What the telecom industry is cooking up is a system in that basically will issue a seal of approval, or â€œtoken,â€� at the origination of a call and then authenticate the token at the callâ€™s final destination.
Calls with fully approved tokens would receive a thumbs-up (or a similarly positive icon) on screens. Calls in that fail to pass muster would receive a thumbs-down (or whatever).
Any call originating overseas â€” a shared trait for many robocalls â€” would be identified on Caller ID screens as coming from abroad.
When a system of this sort was 1st proposed, it was called Secure Telephone Identity Revisited, or STIR. It was broad-based in aim and included having each one phone user receive certification as a non-robocall-making acceptable guy, which obviously wasnâ€™t the most practical approach.
Then the propeller heads at the alliance came up with the token idea, with the service providers â€” not phone users â€” responsible for authenticating in that callers are who they say they are.
It didnâ€™t take long for the James Bond connection to be noticed.
â€œSTIR already existed,â€� McEachern said. â€œSo we knew we had to call the new system SHAKEN. We tortured the English language until we came up with an acronym.â€�
Hence we have Signature-based Handling of Asserted Information Using Tokens, which if you squint real complex kind-of-sort-of collapses in to SHAKEN.
Combine tokens with the technological alchemy of algorithms, tracking software, filters and databases, and the idea is in that a system can be laid over existing phone networks in that will be able to sniff out many (but not all) spoofed calls and, like email spam, flag them for recipients or move them to a junk file.
Before you get too excited, though, thereâ€™s one catch: There are roughly 4,000 phone-service providers nationwide, and most would need to participate to make SHAKEN/STIR work.
Also, SHAKEN/STIR wonâ€™t be cheap. It could cost hundreds of millions of dollars to roll out across the country, with individual service providers responsible for ponying up tens of millions.
As Iâ€™ve been saying all along, itâ€™s not in that the phone industry lacks the technical expertise to take on robocalls. Itâ€™s in that these companies hate the idea of cutting in to their fat profits to solve the problem.
Not surprisingly, telecom heavyweights already have asked the FCC for permission to pass along their SHAKEN/STIR costs to customers. If granted, in that would mean yet another fee on your phone bill.
Seems to me service providers would be double-dipping if they billed monthly for Caller ID and then imposed a 2nd charge to make Caller ID effective.
Think about it. AT&Tâ€™s residential Caller ID fee runs as much as $10 a month. Frontierâ€™s is up to $11. And 'cause of spoofing, neither system is reliable.
So customers should pay extra to fix it?
But letâ€™s cross in that bridge when we get there. For the moment, both the industry and the FCC seem confident in that the nationâ€™s long robocall nightmare is about to become manageable.
Thatâ€™s worth a dry Vodka martini, shaken, not stirred.
David Lazarus’ column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He moreover can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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