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Caller ID Service Sparks Battle Over Privacy


To the great privacy wars of the information age, California is about to add a deceptively simple, hotly controversial piece of telephone technology known as Caller ID.

Its function could hardly be more straightforward: Phone lines equipped with Caller ID make it possible to see the originating phone number of an incoming call. It's not exactly an untested technology. After Caller ID was rolled out in Hawaii last week, California became the only state in the union where the service is not available.

But at a time when constantly expanding, easily accessible computer databases are steadily eroding the treasured commodity known as personal privacy, many see the June 1 introduction of Caller ID in the Golden State as a lamentable, even disastrous form of progress.

No matter that everyone will have the option of blocking the transmission of their telephone numbers, either permanently or on a per-call basis. No matter that anyone calling an 800 or 900 number already is revealing their phone number. No matter that the privacy question can cut both ways: Why, other than tradition, should a caller--perhaps a telemarketer or a heavy breather or even an annoying in-law--have the right to interrupt one's domestic routines anonymously?


Privacy advocates remain unmoved. They say the telephone companies are shamelessly disregarding the rights of their customers for the sake of tens of millions of dollars in new revenue. Much of that money will be ponied up by businesses, who will subscribe to Caller ID in order to log customer phone numbers.

"The main agenda here is to turn your phone number into a Social Security number, so that when you call a Caller ID-equipped business, your number is connected to a database and your profile comes up on a computer screen," said Evan Hendricks, editor of the Washington, D.C., newsletter Privacy Times.

With Caller ID, businesses can create lists that could lead to unsolicited calls from telemarketers or to less intrusive sales pitches in the form of junk mail. With a phone number, it is possible to use a reverse directory to find the address and name of a caller.

Opponents of Caller ID like to point to the tragic case of Kerisha Harps. The 21-year-old San Antonio woman was shot to death last March by her ex-boyfriend hours after she called him on the telephone. His phone was equipped with Caller ID, and he used it to trace her whereabouts.

Since New Jersey became the first state to authorize Caller ID in 1987, regulators nationwide have wrestled with the privacy implications of the service--and especially the crucial question of whether people should have the right to block transmission of their numbers.

Phone companies initially opposed any form of blocking, because the more people block their numbers, the less useful the service becomes. But in California, it was always a question not of whether blocking would be permitted, but what kind. Without blocking, the more than 50% of Californians who have unlisted phone numbers would find it harder to keep their numbers private.

Over the vehement objections of Pacific Bell and GTE, the state Public Utilities Commission eventually opted in favor of the most stringent of blocking regimes: All phone lines would be blocked all the time unless customers took specific action to unblock their lines.

But as the technology was put in place to make Caller ID function for long-distance calls, the Federal Communications Commission took an interest in the issue--and decided last year that California's rules were too stringent. The state sued to overturn the FCC decision, but a federal appellate court in January sided with the agency.

Thus California customers who want to block their lines permanently will have to call the phone company and request it. On an unblocked line, transmission of numbers can be blocked on individual calls by dialing *67 before placing the call. (Calls can be unblocked on a case-by-case basis by dialing *82, and customers with rotary phones can dial 1182 and 1167.)

The Public Utilities Commission ordered the phone companies to conduct a massive public education campaign to inform phone customers--especially non-published ones--about the onset of Caller ID and the blocking options. Tens of thousands of customers inundated Pacific Bell when it launched its educational campaign Feb. 12. The company originally had staffed 375 operators to answer questions and added another 60 to their ranks the next day, said Joan Mataraci, Pacific Bell's product manager for Caller ID.

GTE has assigned 150 customer service representatives to handle calls from its California customers. GTE began running full-page newspaper ads Feb. 14 and received 8,600 calls from customers that day, said spokeswoman Carrie Hyun.

Caller ID opponents, who hope that so many people will choose blocking the service that it will be effectively useless, say the massive consumer response vindicates their position.

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