The World Needs Better CallerID for Phones

Within the past few weeks, several top global news stories have involved prank phone calls in politics. Two were funny: Sarah Palin was punk’d by hosts of a radio show in Canada posing as French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen hung up on Barack Obama— twice. One was not: a prank call to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zadari from someone claiming to be India’s Foreign Minister put Pakistan on high alert for war on December 28th.

We would hope that major world governments already have redundant systems in place to ensure that they know who they’re talking to. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and say that, at a National Capital to National Capital level, among Nuclear Powers, they’ll figure it out– soon. My guess is that plenty of technology is already deployed and the human diligence in using it is the problem.

But what about all the other communications that impact government that transpire every day between people and places that are difficult to verify? Obama ought to be able to call any Congressperson and have them KNOW it’s him. Any Congressperson ought to be able to call a constituent and have them KNOW who it is. Any politician ought to be able to call a reporter and have them KNOW who it is. The NSA may KNOW who it is in all of these cases- I have no idea but wouldn’t be surprised– but often, even in 2008, the people on both ends of the phone having the conversation, do not.

We are used to receiving email spam, so, by and large, we have trained ourselves to be skeptical of email, and, though we don’t use it rigorously, modern email systems support both message encryption and digital signature technology that are relatively easy to use and relatively secure.

On the phone, however, most of us don’t have the same instinct of skepticism, and, unless you know the caller’s voice well,  identity is typically verified only by the phone number that the caller is calling from.  If the phone number that shows up on caller ID is in my address book, then I also know who I believe the phone belongs to. This does not, unfortunately, protect against number spoofing or phone theft. Indeed, the hoax call to the Pakistani President was ‘verified’ to have originated from a ‘verified’ official phone number within the Indian Ministry of External Affairs.

So we need to both improve and also democratize access to more sophisticated identity verification technology for voice telecommunications. And we need to do so without further raising the specter of Big Brother, so use of any improved voice ID technology should be enabled at the option of caller and recipient alike, and evident to both parties.

I have no clue how to achieve this, but I do hope that great entrepreneurial minds are working on it, and not just leaving it to the minds of government Intelligence Services. If I were to tackle it, I would start with established public key cryptography protocols such as PGP that are inexpensive, effective and relatively easy to use in the realm of email, and develop an analogous system for voice over digital cellular networks. Remember, we don’t need to achieve 100% accuracy from any line to any line at any time– we just need to have caller and recipient know if their level of trusted identity is high or not, and we need to make it relatively easy and inexpensive to choose to place a high-identity-trust call when it really matters to do so.