Who’s calling you now?
Big Interview

Who’s calling you now?

Rebekah Johnson (1).jpg

Rebekah Johnson founded a company that verifies the identity of businesses and consumers. Alan Burkitt-Gray asks about her life-long fight against identity fraud.

Who is calling you? Which person or which company? This is not a trivial challenge, at least it is not trivial in the US, or some other countries, such as the UK. But Rebekah Johnson wants to make life simpler and easier for us by introducing a way to verify the identity of callers.

The company Johnson founded is Numeracle. She says its name rhymes with miracle “because it’s a miracle that I actually started the company”. It came about after a spell working with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on its Robocall Strike Force Plan, an attempt to suppress fraudulent phone calls that the regulator launched in October 2016. Johnson represented the Empowering Consumer Choice working group.

Source of the call

It is one thing to be sure of the identity of the call’s source, “but there’s no way of verifying identity”, says Johnson. “There needs to be a way for businesses to verify identity, so carriers do not mistakenly label calls as fraudulent.”

Johnson has been thinking about identity since she was in her 20s. She has worked within the software and telecoms industries since the start of the century, after qualifying in information systems and decision sciences. “My background is technology, a computer scientist and engineer,” she says.

People across many fields in the US experience problems with identifying callers. Johnson starts to list them – the doctor’s office, dentists, schools – but trails off as everyone understands the issue. “And when the information is updated, it’s not being propagated,” she says. “You end up with a lot of dirty data.”

Johnson started her business six years ago create an identity management platform for “enterprise, schools, hospitals, government agencies”.

But in the US, how is everyone having a social security number not enough? “We never protected the concept,” says Johnson. “We have an entire infrastructure based on social security numbers anyone can get.”

The US needs to go back to verified identities, says Johnson, comparing it to the unique seals people used to carry on signet rings.

“That’s been around for centuries,” Johnson notes, adding that we need to adopt a digital equivalent for individuals “and the same concept for business”, otherwise there is fraud, where bogus organisations imitate legitimate businesses. “There are groups that pretend to be a police department. Even brand names cannot protect you.”

So what does Numeracle aim to do? “We give enterprises the opportunity to be vetted and verified and we attach that to communications. My platform would solve the Twitter problem. Businesses were able to get a blue check mark. Consumers believed that some sort of due diligence had been done.”

But this issue is not limited to Twitter, says Johnson, listing a range of messaging apps that claim to verify users’ identities. “A credit card and a phone number are not enough,” she says.

There is a lot of fraud using messaging platforms “which needs to be addressed”, says Johnson.

Stir/Shaken not enough

The FCC has adopted a strategy called Stir/Shaken, which it is now strengthening, especially for calls that come into the US from other countries. But Johnson says this is not enough.

“Do we in the US feel confident to accept calls from overseas?” she asks. “How do we estimate trust?”

In the financial sector, there is already the Global Legal Entity Identifier Foundation (GLEIF) based in Switzerland, whose job to support the implementation and use of the Legal Entity Identifier (LEI). The GLEIF makes the Global LEI Index available, a global online source that provides open, standardised legal entity reference data.

Johnson sees a parallel in this with her interests in her student days, which covered the law as well as computer science.

“But I wanted to go to work and I did not go to law school, and I gravitated to regulation,” says Johnson. “That’s where my brain sits, and that’s prepared me for this moment. This is a regulatory matter.”

Numeracle has staff in the US and Canada, and software talent in India and Pakistan. So how do they persuade businesses that they need identity systems?

“I’ve watched what the industry does,” says Johnson. “It is a concept that they grasp, and I’ve helped them get the concept faster.”

So, is verification something businesses feel the need to spend money on? That is the key says Johnson. “I’ve made identity the solution to the problem. They are losing money. Get your identity system and you’ll make improvements in your business.”

Johnson will be appearing in a panel at ITW in May. “I’ll have something to say about blockchain, and I have a patent for blockchain using telephone numbers. Blockchain is a way of sharing data in a secure way.”

But she wonders why US$100 billion companies would interest themselves in this. “They’re asking themselves, ‘How does this make me money?’ Nobody cares about the technology. It’s what it can do.”

This is the crucial question she wants her business’s potential customers to ask themselves.

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