FTC to Use DefCon Event to Strike Back Against Robocalls

The Federal Trade Commission is using the DefCon hacker conference as the venue to build interest and technology to combat robocalls.


The U.S. Federal Trade Commission receives a lot of complaints from consumers about all manner of things, but among the most common complaints are ones about automated marketing calls, known as "robocalls."

The FTC has embarked on a number of initiatives over the years to combat the scourge of robocalls, even enlisting the support of the DefCon hacker conference community. At the DefCon 2014 event, the FTC ran a contest called "Zapping Rachel" to help build technology to detect robocalls. For this year's event, which starts on Aug. 6 in Las Vegas, the FTC is back with a new contest called "Robocalls: Humanity Strikes Back."

"It's a challenge to the security community to create a solution to identify robocalls received on landlines and on mobile phones and then forward them to a honeypot," Patty Hsue, staff attorney in the Division of Marketing Practices at the FTC, told eWEEK.

Hsue is hopeful that the 2015 "Robocalls: Humanity Strikes Back" contest will build on the success that the FTC experienced with the 2014 "Zapping Rachel" contest. That contest was a successful experience for the FTC, which is why there is a new contest this year, she said.

Plus, the FTC wanted to get more security professionals interested in the topic of robocalls, which Hsue said did in fact happen. The FTC is active in an industry group called the Voice and Telephony Abuse Special Interest Group, which is a consortium of organizations looking at solutions for telephony abuse. Hsue said that as a result of the 2014 contest, the FTC was able to bring new organizations into the group.

The "Robocalls: Humanity Strikes Back" contest has multiple phases. In the first phase, which closed in June, contestants had to show a preliminary approach to identifying robocalls. In the second phase, which will be demonstrated at this year's DefCon, the contestants need to seed the honeypot to get inbound robocalls. The FTC is offering a total of $50,000 in cash prizes as part of the contest.

For the final phase of the contest, Hsue said that it's up to the contestants to determine how they will seed their honeypots. The winner will be determined based on the number of collected robocalls, as well as how well he or she explains the techniques and the uniqueness of the overall solution.

At the end of the contest, the winning technology will not become open-source and the FTC will not take any ownership of the technology. Hsue emphasized that the purpose of the contest is to stimulate the market and get the word out that robocall blocking technology could be useful to consumers.

"For this particular contest the IP [intellectual property] rights will remain with the contestant," she said. "Our hope is that the contestants will make the technology available by bringing it to market."

Many consumers in the U.S. today put their number on the Do Not Call Registry in an effort to limit marketing calls. Hsue said that whether or not robocalls are legal or illegal has nothing to do with the Do Not Call Registry.

"If you receive a robocall and you did not provide consent to receive that robocall, it's still illegal even if you never put your phone number on the Do Not Call Registry," Hsue explained.

Among the many challenges in stopping robocalls is that there isn't a great mechanism in place to properly report and identify them, which Hsue said is part of the impetus for the "Robocalls: Humanity Strikes Back" contest. By building honeypots and other tools to collect robocall information, it will help law enforcement efforts, she added. By also collecting the actual robocall data, which is part of the 2015 DefCon contest, the FTC will have even information available to potentially help identify the source of robocalls.

"We receive a lot of complaints about robocalls at the FTC, and one of the issues for law enforcement is caller ID spoofing," Hsue said. "It makes it very hard to identify who is responsible for making the robocall."

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.