Apple Announces Roboblock

With the introduction of iOS 12.1.2, Apple has added a feature that lets iPhone owners easily block calls from suspicious or unknown numbers.

David Kottcamp
Jan 6, 2019 · 4 min read

No, this is not an actual Apple Press Release. However, it is a press release I would love to see Apple publish.

Getting interrupted by unrecognized callers has become an all too frequent occurrence. Sometimes these numbers are easily ignored, at other times caller ID shows a number so similar to another number you recognize, that you accidentally answer a robocall.

iPhone owners who opt-in to using Roboblock, will be able to flag calls as ‘Don’t Recognize’ either before or after answering them — doing so will add this number to a centrally stored list of robocallers.

Once a number has been flagged several times by other iPhone owners, anyone calling from this flagged number will be asked to enter a code and record a short introduction message, before being allowed to call another iPhone. If the caller provides this information, the call recipient will see this message transcribed and can choose whether to accept the call or mark as ‘Don’t Recognize’.

If this caller continues to be flagged as ‘Don’t recognize’ by other iPhone owners, the number will be permanently blocked from calling any iPhone until the number is reissued to a new owner. The owner of this number may appeal this block with Apple, by providing proof that they have not violated Apple’s Roboblock User Agreement (when iPhone owners opt into Roboblock, they give Apple permission to act on their behalf to block nuisance calls), as well as the information normally provided when seeking to transfer a phone number.

Furthermore, Apple will provide the FCC with a list of numbers to that are suspected to have violated iPhone owners rights, so they can prosecute anyone who has violated the Do Not Call registry. To help stamp out unwanted callers iPhone owners should remember to add their phone numbers to the Do Not Call Registry.

My motivations for writing this article are pretty straightforward, I use my iPhone primarily for work and am often frustrated by calls from numbers I don’t recognize. Occasionally I’ll even be tricked into answering one of these calls, given the similarity to another number I know.

Where I come at this from

I haven’t spent significant time researching the nuances of telecommunications laws, and may run afoul of laws; that being said, it’s not dissimilar from the way other call blocking apps function. Also, by requiring iPhone owners to opt into allowing Apple to act as their proxy, Apple should have plenty of room to work within the current legal framework.

Design considerations

I’ve tried some of the existing apps that aim to block unwanted calls, and while they seem to work pretty well, I find it annoying that such a core service isn’t provided by the phone’s operating system (OS), and requires users to pay an extra monthly fee.

Additionally, being an integral part of the OS would allow Apple to be much more effective in a short period of time, given they could crowdsource from over 85 million iPhone owners in the US.

As mentioned in the press release, a key element of this program is that it’s not just an iOS feature; iPhone owners would need to accept terms of service to opt into Roboblock, explicitly granting Apple permission to block calls to the owners’ iPhones, while indemnifying Apple from liability, in the case they block Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes from reaching someone with their $10,000,000 winnings.

Accidents Happen

Who hasn’t accidentally hit the wrong button in an app? Given the potential severity of getting blocked from calling others if flagged as ‘Don’t Recognize’; Roboblock will see if you have previously interacted with this number (texts and phone calls), and if so, can prompt the iPhone owner to validate that they meant to do this.

Getting Un-Blocked

There will be cases, such as when someone is issued a new phone number, that may require a previously blocked number getting unblocked. This can easily be facilitated by requiring new iPhone owners to go thru the same validation process used when phone numbers are moved between service providers.

Remaining Effective

One key aspect of Roboblock is to collect enough data on an ongoing basis to be able to identify new patterns that robocallers are using to circumvent your algorithms; after all, it’s unlikely these scammers will give up easily. The main objective is to raise the cost enough to maker robocalling uneconomical.

In Summary

What do you think? Would you opt-in to Roboblock? What would you do differently?

Enhancement Request

So many ideas, so little time.