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CRTC’s crackdown on spam calls won’t have immediate effects — but it’s a step in the right direction

This article was originally published by the Toronto Star on November 17th, 2021. To view the original article, please click here.

After years of attempts to crack down on spam phone calls, Canada’s telecommunications watchdog may finally be on its way to reducing the pesky and often dangerous fraud attempts.

The agency is making telecom providers adopt new technology that validates nonfraudulent calls, and as soon as Nov. 30, some Canadians could start seeing carriers’ stamps of approval on incoming calls. Experts say it’s an important step toward a future with far fewer robocalls, which have been rising in recent years.

Ian Scott, chair of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), said in a speech Monday that Canada’s telecom providers have until Nov. 30 to update their Internet Protocol (IP) networks to a new technical standard which will enable them to validate a caller’s identity and pass that information on to the person receiving the call.

Scott told the Canadian Telecom Summit in Toronto that robocalls are contributing to an “erosion of confidence in the telecommunications system.”

In an interview after the speech, he said more than 25 per cent of all calls made on mobile networks are robocalls.

“It’s a huge problem, and it’s going to require tremendous effort by regulators and co-operation by the industry to address.”

The technology the CRTC wants to use to mitigate these calls is known as STIR/SHAKEN; it stands for Secure Telephony Information Revisited, and Signature-based Handling of Asserted information using toKENs.

The former is a technical standard used by carriers to authenticate caller identities, and the latter is the framework for implementing the STIR standard in IP-based networks.

Put in practice, the idea is to give Canadians an indication as to the legitimacy of an incoming call. Scott described a caller ID accompanied by an indication of whether or not their carrier had identified the caller’s identity. The CRTC is also mandating that carriers give consumers the option to filter calls or block them.

But don’t get too excited. Come Nov. 30, Canadian mobile users won’t see a dramatic difference, say experts.

Edward Antecol, vice-president of professional services and legal counsel for COMsolve, said the impact of STIR/SHAKEN will be minor for consumers at first, as not all of them will have access to the service right away, but it will help with the law enforcement of spam calls, and over time will become more effective.

A hallmark of robocalls is that they come from a real-looking number, which changes every time, said Antecol. Often the number shares your area code, so you think it’s local and pick up the phone. This is known as “spoofing.”

With STIR/SHAKEN, the originating carrier can send a message to the terminating carrier about the call, attesting to the likelihood of it being valid based on the caller’s ID and other information. If it’s a valid call, the terminating carrier can then display a signal to the user, such as a green check mark, to indicate that the call has been validated and is likely not spam. This only works on smartphones.

However, STIR/SHAKEN can’t be used to mark a call as potentially fraudulent. For this, the carrier must use analytics to determine if a call is a possible robocall, said Antecol. The carrier can then label that call as potential spam, but not with 100 percent accuracy. This ability is the carrier’s choice, said Antecol, as it isn’t mandated by the CRTC.

Another gap is that some telecom providers use IP networks while others still use older TDM networks, said Antecol. The Nov. 30 deadline only applies to IP networks.

Most service providers in Canada use a mix of the two, with a large portion of voice traffic still carried via TDM, but providers are moving toward upgrading to IP-only.

Antecol said while STIR/SHAKEN can be used over TDM too, that is not part of the CRTC mandate.

In his speech, Scott encouraged carriers to upgrade to IP.

So while customers will soon start seeing some calls marked with green check marks, that won’t mean all calls without a check mark are spam, said Antecol. The technology will improve over time as carriers upgrade to IP networks and analytics improve, he said.

Rogers is implementing STIR/SHAKEN at the end of the month, said a spokesperson. Customers using compatible devices will have a new feature on their incoming call screen telling them if the call has been authenticated, as long as the call is IP-based. Rogers has already introduced universal call blocking, which blocks calls from telephone numbers that don’t conform with North American or international numbering plans.

Telus, too, said it will implement STIR/SHAKEN at the end of the month. It also introduced a call control feature last year, which blocks many autodialed calls, said a spokesperson.

Bell has upgraded its IP-enabled networks and accelerated delivery and testing of the new technology, said a spokesperson. The company also has universal call blocking.

John Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, said the STIR/SHAKEN technology is “an objectively good thing,” especially since it’s not proprietary.

In theory, it will be easy for consumers to use, adding a simple step to incoming calls, said Lawford.

But he cautions consumers not to let their guard down after Nov. 30. “It isn’t going to stop all calls.”

Even if consumers won’t see a monumental difference right away, STIR/SHAKEN could help trace spam calls back to their origins and hopefully reduce robocalls at the source.

Antecol explained that STIR/SHAKEN makes tracebacks to the original caller much easier, which could help law enforcement or other groups crack down on spammers.

The CRTC expects STIR/SHAKEN to increase consumer confidence in caller ID information and protect consumers against fraudulent calls, said spokesperson Isabella Maestri.

As service providers continue to upgrade to IP technology, more and more phones will be compatible with this technology, Maestri said in an email.

Scott said Bell Canada has applied to the CRTC for the ability to permanently block fraudulent calls. The carrier has been testing this analytics technology and has blocked more than 1.1 billion calls between July 2021 and October 2021.

The CRTC is expected to issue a decision about Bell’s application soon.


About COMsolve Inc.

Founded in 2006, COMsolve is a Canadian leading-edge Information and Communications Technology (ICT) solutions provider. We provide deployment and professional services to carriers, data centers, service providers, municipalities and enterprises. We specialize in turnkey infrastructure deployment solutions such as macro site, small cell, in-building and structured cabling services. Our wealth of experience in regulatory affairs, design, installation, testing and maintaining infrastructure, enables our team to ensure the success of your business implementation.

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