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New phone feature could result in loss of privacy

Column by Mark Kantrowitz

Column by Mark Kantrowitz

Column by Mark Kantrowitz

NYNEX announced last Tuesday that it plans to introduce "Caller Number Delivery," a service for residence and business customers which displays the telephone number of an incoming call before the call is answered. While the new capabilities have been praised in telephone company market studies and customer surveys, some groups feel that they may result in a decline in usage of confidential telephone services and hotlines, since callers would effectively be forced to announce their identity.

Unlike MIT's new phone system -- which has the caller number delivery feature -- NYNEX does not plan to offer a blocking function for users who wish to retain their privacy. Currently MIT users may prevent a digital phone from displaying their telephone number by dialing "65" before placing the call. "We believe the terminating party has a right to know where the call is coming from," said Gerald J. Malette, New England Telephone's product manager.

But John Roberts, Executive Director of the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, does not agree. "We will be opposing it," he said, adding that "people should have control over their privacy."

Roberts wondered how this would affect people with unlisted numbers. "If they have to pay extra to have it blocked, is that fair?"

Malette countered that New England Telephone is moving forward on the basis of New Jersey Bell's experience, which has been offering the service on a test basis since December and has received virtually no complaints. "Besides, the utility of the feature would be restricted if the majority of calls were not passed," he added.

Malette noted that the American Civil Liberties Union did not intervene in the New Jersey case, "presumably because there are arguments on both sides of the street." The telephone company's contract with unlisted number customer's is that they won't publish the number or divulge it through directory assistance. "Such customers generally call people who they already know, and are not opposed in that case, as the New Jersey test shows," he said.

"Most customers want the ability to screen calls; letting them know who's calling makes them feel more secure," Malette added. "Just think how great it would be if we could eliminate or significantly reduce harassing and obscene phone calls. False alarms dropped significantly in New Jersey shortly after the introduction of the service. It makes people think a little bit more before using the phone on a lark." The service also allows take-out restaurants and delivery services to avoid crank calls, by letting them know who's calling.

The ability to screen calls, however, might lead to discrimination if someone decides not to receive telephone calls from a particular number. For example, I recently called an MIT administrative office, announcing "I'm calling from The Tech," and they replied "I know."

Some organizations are concerned that callers might be less likely to use confidential telephone services for fear that their telephone numbers, and hence their names, would be revealed. Nancy Gleason, outreach coordinator for the Samaritans, said that "we would not use [this service] because confidentiality is very important to our callers. We wouldn't do something which might invade their privacy." At MIT, Nightline ensured the confidentiality of their callers by physically removing the LCD displays from their phones.

The new feature will be a boon to emergency services, such as police, fire, and ambulance, according to Malette. Such services will be better able to respond in crisis situations where the caller panicked. If the caller accidentally hung up, they could call them back, or even trace the address by the phone number.

Though the new feature is desired by many people, New England Telephone could alleviate many concerns by enabling a directory number privacy feature similar to that at MIT. Such a feature allows people to make their phone number private on a per-call basis. An individual could choose whether to accept calls from private numbers, and the telephone company could override the privacy feature in cases of obscene and harassing phone calls.

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Mark Kantrowitz, a senior in the Departments of Mathematics and Philosophy, is a contributing editor of The Tech.