A recent blog post from Google caught my eye: Ask a Techspert: Why am I getting so many spam calls? The post says Paul Dunlop, the product manager for the Google Phone App, claims “voice-over IP (VoIP) is the culprit.” “Using VoIP technology, spammers place phone calls over the Internet and imitate a different phone number,” Paul says, and the post claims “there’s nothing in phone systems—the infrastructure of telephones—that can prevent spam callers from imitating numbers.”
The rest of the post is an advertisement for the Call Screening feature that Google recently built into their Pixel phones.
I’ll talk about the last item first, and then circle back.
I have a Pixel 3 and I can confirm that the screening feature is clever and fun and technically impressive. When I receive a call, I can click a “Screen” button. The phone tells the caller to state their name and the nature of their call. Then, it transcribes what they say, as they say it, with the words appearing on my phone display. If I like what I see, I can click to proceed with the call; otherwise I can dump it. It’s fascinating to watch the transcription, which is done locally on the device.
The idea is that I can use this tool to answer calls from unknown numbers (likely robocallers), rather than greet them with my own voice. Once they’re vetted via the transcription, I can talk to them.
While fascinating, how useful is this screening feature? When a call arrives, I’ve still got to interrupt what I’m doing to activate screening, and then watch to see what the caller says. I’m not sure how this is better than just answering and hearing the caller. Certainly I have to answer if I’m driving; I can’t avert my eyes to watch and read the text. And the feature doesn’t function for a call-waiting call, so it doesn’t resolve the dilemma of putting my first caller on hold to discover if the next call is about an urgent matter or an unwanted robocall.
For me, Pixel Caller Screening is not a solution to the robocall scourge, but it is cool.
Now, to Paul’s original claim that the scourge is intractable. That’s incorrect. There IS something that phone systems, or more precisely telephone providers – the ones running the telephone network – can do. Every call to a USA telephone number must enter the network through a provider. No provider is required to permit anybody to use any phone number as their caller-ID. Providers can apply screening rules that prevent those callers from doing the spoofing that Paul describes. And phone providers don’t need to let any caller make dozens or hundreds or even thousands of calls per second, as illegal robocallers do. Entities with a legitimate need for volume calling capability must be vetted before getting access to such capability.
It IS possible to solve the illegal robocall problem, and to do so in a way that doesn’t require every telephone subscriber to screen their calls or deploy special apps at the receiving end of the call. Telephone providers need to prevent these illegal calls from entering the network in the first place. Many providers already do. Every provider needs to get on board.