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Privacy Matters

Sun, 09/30/2007 - 6:53pm
Monica Alleven

The industry’s attempts to create a cell phone directory are at a standstill,

but that’s not stopping individual companies from offering lists of numbers.

Lawmakers in the state of Washington likely will consider legislation next year to limit the way cell phone numbers are distributed in the public arena.

Privacy MattersThat’s because the state’s Attorney General’s office is looking into the matter after reporters started calling about the practices of Intelius, which is based in Bellevue, Wash. The company, founded in 2003 by former InfoSpace executive Naveen Jain, offers an online way to search for cell phone numbers. The company, which declined a request to be interviewed for this story, has come under fire for not only offering an online search of cell phone numbers but for producing inaccurate results.

Industry-wide efforts to create a national cell phone directory service fizzled after issues related to privacy divided the wireless industry several years ago. One big holdout was Verizon Wireless, which very publicly refused to take any part in it, leading many to question the usefulness of an opt-in directory that didn’t have Verizon’s millions of customers in it.

THE PROCESS

To use the Intelius service, customers visit its Website and enter a person’s name or cell phone number. When searching by name, Intelius’ directory checks the name and expands the search results to include other possible connections to the name entered. The company says an Intelius cell phone report contains information on a cell phone user, including name, address and other contact numbers. Each search costs $14.95.

A Wireless Week test of the system, which cost $21.40 with two add-on confirmation and e-mail services, turned up the correct owner of a cell phone number and the correct initiating carrier but did not reflect that the number had been ported to another carrier. Others, including CTIA President and CEO Steve Largent, have had a different experience. Largent entered his number into the database and paid the $14.95 look-up fee with a credit card, but the system said the number was owned by someone else, even though he’s had it for about four years. Still, he couldn’t get a refund.

Largent: Not given a

refund even though

provided number

was incorrect.

The Washington State Attorney General’s office isn’t currently going after Intelius for its inaccurate results or failure to give refunds, but it does plan to draft legislation and shop around for a lawmaker to present it during the 2008 session. Washington’s current law that prohibits the sharing of people’s cell phone numbers without their permission only pertains to wireless carriers and their close partners. “We want to extend that law to cover third parties,” says Attorney General Rob McKenna.

The Attorney General’s office doesn’t know how Intelius is getting its numbers. Statements from Intelius executives to The Seattle Times indicate some of them might come from public documents, but the Attorney General’s staff notes that public documents typically are not rich with that type of information. It’s possible that people are revealing their numbers on some Websites or on forms for local drawings that offer prizes, for example, and they may not be fully aware their numbers can get into the hands of other parties.

CTIA WEIGHS IN

CTIA is aware of the state’s interest in the third-party issue, and it believes it deserves the attention of government officials, according to CTIA spokesman Joe Farren.

Of course, CTIA has a lot of experience with privacy and wireless directory issues. In 2004, CTIA facilitated carriers in choosing Qsent as the aggregator for a then-proposed wireless 411 service. Qsent, which was acquired by TransUnion last year, was selected in part for its proprietary technology for managing identity data. The plan called for no actual printing of a directory but for information to be made available only to participating carriers in response to real-time requests.

Farren says as far as he knows, that initiative is no longer active. Some of CTIA’s members were behind it; others were not. The mission all along was to make it only opt-in, mainly for the millions of small business owners and others who would like to have their numbers listed. If it ever were to come up again, the only way it would operate is under a strict opt-in scenario, but for now, “I don’t think there’s a lot of activity surrounding the issue,” he says.

Some companies that work closely with carriers and could be privy to consumers’ cell phone numbers are extremely careful in how they handle them. “We never pass on the phone number,” says Ray Anderson, CEO of mobile Web billing specialist Bango. “We have a lot of information. We have to be cautious.”

In some cases, the law prevents the sharing of the information, but primarily, the company won’t share that type of information because it’s inappropriate, he says. People don’t expect their numbers to be shared.

McKenna: Plans

to draft legislation

including third-party companies.

Before rules were fully established, a scam in the United Kingdom did some damage before it was largely stamped out, he recalls. Marketers were getting mobile phone numbers without the subscribers’ knowledge. It was hard to track down the wrong-doers because many of the parties that were involved were making money to the disadvantage of end-users.

Intelius positions its service, in part, as a way for people to check unknown numbers that are calling them and to be more informed about who’s trying to get in touch with them and their children. That’s where alternative caller ID service providers such as Cequint say they come in. Executives at Seattle-based Cequint say their caller ID service, called City ID, gets around privacy concerns but still addresses consumers’ desire to know who’s calling. With the service, users see the city and state where the caller’s number was registered. The service doesn’t use GPS to show the present location of the caller. Alltel Wireless is the first carrier to offer the service commercially.

Cequint executives say they’ve been in touch with privacy group advocates who apparently haven’t seen problems with it. McKenna says the service doesn’t strike him as problematic. While the City ID service doesn’t identify who’s calling, it often gives users enough information to make an educated guess.

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