Google on Tuesday took a step toward controlling spam voice calls on Android devices with a new addition to its phone app.
The “Verified Calls” feature will display a caller’s name, logo, reason for calling and a verification symbol indicating a business has been verified by Google.
“This is done in a secure way — Google doesn’t collect or store any personally identifiable information after verification,” Google Product Manager Gal Vered explained in a company blog.
Google Phone, which will feature Verified Calls, comes preloaded on many Android phones. For those that don’t have the app out of the box, the company announced the software will be available later this week as a download from the Google Play store.
The service will initially roll out in the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Spain and India, with more countries to follow.
Addressing a Significant Problem
“Google is following a path that all carriers have to follow,” said Liz Miller, vice president and a principal analyst Constellation Research.
“These robocalls, these scam calls have become a significant problem, not only because they’re an invasion of privacy, but because they’re working,” she told TechNewsWorld.
According to an FCC report, the median loss in 2019 for a consumer who fell for a phone scam was US$1,000.
“At the carrier level, at the app level and at the device level, everyone is trying to figure out a way to combat this,” Miller continued. “I think Google’s answer through this app fits into the mold of being part of the solution to this problem.”
Bob O’Donnell, founder and chief analyst with Technalysis Research, noted that Google’s offering could be very useful. “We all get spam calls from all kinds of places so more and more companies are trying to figure out ways to block them,” he told TechNewsWorld.
“The one challenge is that the carriers are also trying to provide some of these services so there’s a potential of overlap, but I think it makes more sense to provide it from the OS perspective,” he continued.
“The carriers don’t have nearly as much information as Google,” he added.
Efforts to Squash Spammers
“There’s been a renewed interest in preventing scams and robocalls, which have exploded in the past few years,” said Ross Rubin, the principal analyst with Reticle Research.
In March, for example, the FCC launched its STIR/SHAKEN initiative, which is supposed to be fully implemented in 2021. STIR/SHAKEN — Secure Telephone Identity Revisited (STIR) and Signature-based Handling of Asserted Information Using toKENs (SHAKEN) — takes aim at caller ID spoofing. Spoofing occurs when the caller ID number displayed on a phone isn’t the one belonging to the caller.
With STIR/SHAKEN, calls traveling through phone networks will have their caller ID “signed” as legitimate by originating carriers and validated by other carriers before reaching consumers.
“Google goes a step further than that by identifying the rationale for a call,” Rubin told TechNewsWorld.
On the carrier side, T-Mobile has launched ScamShield, which gives its users control over a suite of protections against unwanted calls.
“The T-Mobile approach is a classic filtering play, trying to block as many robocalls as possible,” Rubin explained. “Google is not only trying to validate the caller but the value of the call itself.”
Apple, too, has joined the anti-scam party with its “Silence Unkown Callers” feature in iOS 13. When the option is enabled, all calls from unknown numbers are sent to voice mail automatically.
Although Google isn’t storing any personally identifiable information with Verified Calls, that doesn’t mean Google isn’t collecting data from the process.
“What Google is telling businesses is if you register with us and tell us who you’re calling and what the call is about, we’ll forward that to the caller,” explained Jack E. Gold, founder and principal analyst with J.Gold Associates.
“The problem is calls have to be registered with Google to make that happen,” he told TechNewsWorld. “Do we trust Google to have that additional data about us?”
“The data isn’t personal, but they still have your phone number,” he continued. “It’s the same thing with web browsing. They don’t retain any personal data with web browsing either, but they know what ads to serve you, don’t they?”
“Google is saying it’s trying to help users of Android systems, which is probably true,” he added. “On the other hand, do I want Google to know that I have bank accounts with the Bank of America?”
“This is a double-edged sword, and raises all kinds of privacy concerns,” he said.
Google doesn’t do anything that doesn’t benefit Google, Constellation Research’s Miller added.
“There’s certainly data that’s being collected and stored, it’s just falling outside the realm of personal identifying information,” she said.
A Fee-Based Future?
Information gathered by Google during the verification process could also be used to gain a competitive advantage over rivals.
“If Google can gain insights into the needs of the businesses doing these verifications, that’s an opportunity to better tailor online advertising to those businesses,” Rubin suggested.
“Facebook is a very important marketing channel for a lot of small businesses,” he continued. “Google wants to be able to compete there. If it has a better sense of the products and services of a business, it can better tailor its online advertising offerings to that business.”
Although Verified Calls is being launched as a free service, some experts believe it could be converted into a cash channel in the future.
A year from now, Google could go to companies and say, “We increased your call pickups by X percent. It’s time to start paying for this service,” Gold speculated.
“This is a great money-making opportunity for Google,” Miller added. “It’s part of Google being part of the solution but also finding a nice revenue stream to help businesses get people to pick up the phone.”
Technalysis Research’s O’Donnell, though, maintained that getting businesses and consumers to use Verified Calls will produce revenue for Google without charging for the service.
“Google wants to get people to use their services,” he said. “Using their services produces more data and information for them. More data and information can be turned into advertising revenue for them.”
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