The Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) yesterday approved of Bell Canada’s new AI-based anti-spam system on a 90-day trial basis.

The system will be tested for 90 days to measure its efficacy in blocking fraudulent calls from illegitimate and malformed numbers.

Bell’s application specifies that its new system uses AI to analyze call traffic and flag anomalies that simulate spam activity. Once verified, all subsequent calls from the same source would be blocked at the network layer. Neither the caller nor the target will be notified if a call is blocked.

Other than a general overview, the exact inner workings of Bell’s new system is a mystery. Bell cited that revealing its cogs “could be reasonably expected to result in material gain for bad actors” and compromise the efficacy of Bell’s proposed call-blocking system.

Derek Lackey, managing director of data protection and privacy firm Newport Thomson, said in an email that he believes Bell’s new service has merit.

“Many of these callers are not welcomed in most people’s homes,” wrote Lackey. “These people have asked not to be called. Blocking suspicious callers is simply honouring their request.”

But Lackey also warned that this could also provide an avenue for large corporations to inject censorship by selectively filtering out calls for their benefit. 

“CRTC has to monitor this carefully to be sure it is only the bad actors being blocked and not legitimate call centres acting on behalf of brands,” said Lackey.

Lackey’s concern is one that’s also been considered by the CRTC. In its decision, the CRTC stressed that a Canadian carrier, Bell or otherwise, cannot “control the content or influence the meaning or purpose of telecommunications carried by it for the public”.

Interveners such as Rogers, Telus, and the Competitive Network Operator of Canada (CNOC), expressed concern in how to correctly define fraudulent calls and the potential of false positives. Moreover, interveners are concerned with Bell’s authority to access the call information for not only its customers but also data from other telcos that are only transiting its networks. Allstream and CNOC emphasized that Bell’s definition of what constitutes as a spam call isn’t clear enough. Others have requested Bell to block calls originated from other telcos on an opt-in basis.

Videotron, a Quebec-based telco, argued that Bell Canada’s new system would reduce a consumer’s choice of call blocking measures. Bell argued that its new system exists as a complement to current solutions and is an additional safety net to capture calls that dodge said solutions.

The commission addressed these concerns in its decision. According to the approval letter, the CRTC agreed with Bell in that it’s impossible to execute the trial on an opt-in basis. The CRTC also agreed that the benefit of the trial in reducing congestion and affording protection to consumers outweigh the risks. 

To correct false positives, Bell will provide an automated unblocking system, as well as a contact number to report possible false positives. The CRTC also concluded that false positives are “unlikely” after reviewing Bell’s system designs.

The CRTC also assured interveners that Bell may only collect information for flagging verifying, and blocking the fraudulent calls, and is forbidden to use or disclose the information for any other purpose. 

When the CRTC proposed a mandatory network-layer call blocking feature for malformed numbers on Dec. 19, 2019, Bell Canada, Cogeco, Eastlink, SaskTel, Shaw, Videotron and various other telcos opposed the idea. They argued that if universal network-level call blocking becomes a requirement, bad actors would create more invisible ways to sneak by the detection criteria and circumvent the countermeasures. Furthermore, telcos noted that it will be difficult to distinguish legitimate calls from spam calls.

Despite their protests, the CRTC maintained that universal network-level call blocking is effective in shielding consumers from nuisance calls and that Canadians are unsatisfied with the current solutions available. The commission pointed out that bad actors would continue to evolve their tactics regardless of the preventative actions. Therefore, operators should continuously improve their countermeasures accordingly.

Although it’s against CRTC’s mandate, Shaw Communications, the parent company of Freedom Mobile, admitted that its experiment with a universal-call blocking feature significantly reduced the volume of unwanted calls.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada