FTC Pits Humans Against Robocalls in New Contest

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FTC is looking for anyone who can block, forward and predict which phone calls are made by automated systems.

If you have a good system for blocking automated marketing calls, the Federal Trade Commission might have a cash prize for you. 

For the past few years, FTC has been trying to curtail an uptick in robocalls by asking members of the public to submit their own ideas. On Monday, the commission plans to announce two new contests searching for homegrown solutions for blocking, forwarding and analyzing the automated calls.

These open competitions are a way of "engaging communities that have not previously looked at this problem," said Patricia Hsue, an attorney in the FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection's marketing practices division. 

They are also part of a larger effort to open technology challenge contests to the public. During a markup meeting earlier this week, for instance, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology approved a bill aiming to support federally funded challenge contests, such as those sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

FTC's first contest asks inventors to build a system that can identify incoming robocalls, block them and then forward them to a "honeypot" -- a system the government can use to analyze the calls.

Judged in part on their system's ability to distinguish between call from humans and automated ones, competitors can win up to $25,000. Submissions are accepted through June 15 and finalists will compete at the DEFCON hacker conference in Las Vegas in August. 

The second contest, called "DetectaRobo", will be held June 6 on the National Day of Civic Hacking. The first 50 contestants to register will be asked to analyze real data from an existing honeypot.

Their task is to develop an algorithm that can identify which calls are likely to be robocalls. Submissions could help design better honeypots to lure more robocallers, so that law enforcement, academics and other groups can collect more data on robocalling patterns, Hsue said. 

FTC is sponsoring the contests to highlight effective ways to combat robocalling, but "our hope is that whoever the winners are will bring the product to market," Hsue said, to "demonstrate the market need for this." 

Critics of open-source public contests like this one argue that "bad actors" -- perhaps, the people who design robocalling systems -- "will know exactly what you're doing," Hsue said.

But "I’m not as concerned about the bad actors," she added. "The reality is, as we refine our tactics, they refine their tactics. It’s just going to be a constant battle between the two."

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