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Caller ID helps more than it hurts

I was sleeping blissfully in my dorm room last term, dreaming of nuclear weapons, when a murderously loud telephone ring yanked me from my dreams of theater-wide tactical defense. Falling out of my bunk bed onto an open three ring binder, the latest Economist, a pizza and a half a dozen Coke cans, I limped to the phone, only to find my tired greeting answered by dead silence.

I hung up the phone and hurled my numb body into my bed, and, just as I was about to return to unconsciousness, heard the phone next door ringing. After a few seconds phones started ringing, sequentially in every room in the hall. My floor had just been hit by a demon dialer, a bit-head with an autodialing modem. Some guy was spending his time calling every number in the phone book looking for computers to hack.

Alas, the identity of this mystery nerd I will never know -- not because the technology does not exist to find it, but because Congress and the Federal Communications Commission may kill any chances that I would get a hold of it.

It's called Caller ID, and it's currently produced one of the biggest political and legal fights in the communications industry. Caller ID itself is simple -- a box, rented to telephone customers, displays on an LCD panel the phone number of any individual (or computer) that tries to call. While actually tracing a telephone call may take as long as a minute or two, Caller ID works instantaneously. When your phone rings, you see the number of the person who is calling. Look up the number in a backwards phone book and you have the name and address of the caller.

Caller ID is now available in many cities (and MIT as well). If Caller ID is implemented everywhere, harassing and obscene phone calls might become as rare as harassing skywriting and blimp messages.

Privacy pundits are hyperventilating. In Congress, in the FCC and in state communication commissions, people are calling for ways in which individuals can disable Caller ID to maintain their privacy when calling others. Among the arguments for restricting Caller ID are privacy for people who call confidential support lines and people who respond to commercial advertisements. Many legislators fear that people's identities will be uncovered from commercial calls and that unscrupulous telemarketing companies will sell these names without the caller's consent.

I do not know about you, but I do not live paralyzed with a fear that my name is being sold to companies without my consent. That happens anyway whenever I subscribe to a magazine or buy something by mail order. I'd rather get many calls from dorks I know than a few calls from dorks I don't.

Plans for restricting Caller ID include methods for phone users to block tracing for specific calls, or allow automatic blocking on any call from certain, registered phone lines. Allow these blocking measures, and you might as well not have Caller ID at all.

Confidential support lines have the only tenable argument for allowing restrictions on Caller ID, and for the sake of these organizations alone I support some limited blocking ability for Caller ID.

One way to balance all concerns would be for an individual to be able to block caller ID only on a call-by-call basis. The phone company would keep a record of all requests to block tracing, the number of the person subsequently called and the number of the person who called him. These records would be available to anyone willing to call and find out. People who call for this information would be automatically traced. If an obscene caller tried to deactivate Caller ID to make a harassing phone call, the phone company would have a record. If an unscrupulous hotline staffer tried to find out who ordered a trace blocking and then called him, his identity would be recorded for possible legal action. Everybody wins.

Another nifty option I heard from a friend is to enable Caller ID users to detect whether or not a call they are making is being traced, and if so, allow the caller to terminate the call. Another feature could allow a person to block untraceable calls from reaching his phone. Harassing callers with untraceable lines would suddenly find that they can't get through to anyone. People who call hotlines would know if staffers were trying to finger them.

Caller ID is a great technology, and America's phone lines are a public forum. If political candidates must reveal the identities of people who donate to their campaigns, we certainly have the right to keep phantom phoney phone callers from hiding behind anonymity.

whoMatthew H. Hersch, a sophomore in the Department of Physics, is an opinion editor of The Tech.