Monday, March 5, 2012

When Robots Come Calling (or "All Your Call Display Are Belong to Us")

For any who haven't been following the "robo call" scandal, the gist is this: during the most recent Canadian federal election there were some instances of people receiving automated telephone calls telling them that their polling station had been changed, prompting many to go to the wrong polling station and therefore not voting.

The scandalous part is the possibility of a link between these nefarious phone calls and the the Conservative Party of Canada.

What makes the issue terribly difficult to deal with is that today's "robo calls" are part of a new style of telephony that most of us simply do not understand. For this reason, I am offering this primer on the New World Order of telephones.

Most people have, by now, heard the term "VOIP". It stands for "Voice Over Internet Protocol", and is simply a method for making traditional telephone calls but digitizing, compressing and then sending the call through the Internet in order to avoid high-priced telephone lines. It's how you get these ridiculously cheap phone cards that let you make overseas calls for a fraction of a cent per minute.

It's also how you continue to get annoying telemarketing calls despite being on every "do not call" list known to mankind.

Much like e-mail revolutionized direct marketing through the invention of Spam, VOIP has revolutionized telephone calls. What used to take a call center and dozens of trained operators can now be accomplished by a lone university dropout from his parents' basement.

A single computer can dial multiple people at once and deliver a recorded message to each for ridiculously low rates. With only a line or two of configuration you can add options such as 'Press 1 to speak to a representative" so you only need a handful of real people to respond to those who take the bait.

Ah, but what about Call Display? Much like with email, Call Display trusts the information it is given. If I obtain an account with one of many, many VOIP providers and tell my PC to provide "Your Mom 555-555-5555" as the Caller ID, it will show that on your phone.

This led to a great deal of confusion during the most recent Winnipeg mayoral race when the mayor's office sent out a controversial robo call campaign and inadvertently inserted the wrong number in the Caller ID. This led to one poor voter, completely unassociated with the election, being bombarded with angry telephone calls about the campaign.

Bumbling though they may be, the Bad Guys have gotten this figured out. Voice spam and elections fraud are just the tip of the iceberg. It can be extremely difficult (maybe even impossible at times) to trace these phone calls back to a point of origin. While I seriously doubt that any political party would actually engage in these tactics, I would not doubt for a second that misguided individuals would - either to benefit or cast suspicion upon any given party.

I'm not sure how things are going to change in the next few years but right now the internet telephony industry is pretty much the Wild West and the domestic phone companies don't seem to know how to deal with it.

In the meantime, while I'm not saying you should distrust your phone, you should nevertheless take what it tells you with a grain of salt.

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