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FTC seeks DEFCON help to finger illegal robocallers

Plans cash-money honeypot competition in August

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The Federal Trade Commission is to host a cash competition at this year's DEFCON hacking conference in Las Vegas, with the goal of building a honeypot that can lure in robocallers and allow technologists to analyze how to block them in the future.

"Honeypots have been used extensively among information security specialists, but until today, there has been limited cross-pollination between their expertise and the efforts to fight telephone spam," said the agency.

"Unfortunately, the technical distinctions between a telephone call and an email have made it difficult to use internet security tactics in the battle against robocalls. We hope to change that by inspiring DEF CON experts to apply their knowledge and creativity on behalf of the millions of people frustrated by these illegal calls."

The contest is called "Zapping Rachel", as a tribute to the FTC's 2012 takedown of five robocalling operators who were sending out messages purporting to be from "Rachel in Cardholder Services." The amount of prize money hasn't yet been announced, but it's likely to be $50,000 based on past examples.

In 2012 the FTC offered the same sum to members of the public and small research teams who could come up with a way of blocking some robocalls. The agency ended up splitting the $50,000 prize pot between two winners, one of whom has since deployed a finished product that the FTC claims has since stymied four million robocalls.

The agency is now hoping that the talented men and women attending DEFCON can do better. The hacking conference, held August 7 to 10, immediately after the Black Hat briefings that cover more corporate hacking issues, is one of the oldest of its kind and attracts the cream of the hacking community – and whatever else floats to the top.

Such appeals from government agencies to hackers are nothing new. The NSA and others host recruitment booths at Black Hat, and last year the then-head of the NSA appealed directly to the hacking community for support. But at the same time, DEFCON banned federal staff from its floor, citing Snowden's leaks about NSA spying as the cause.

Nevertheless, if there's a sufficient purse up for grabs, the hacking community should be able to come up with some good ideas to help stop the robocalling industry from interrupting dinners across the land. ®

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