William Jackson | Just how much privacy do we expect?

Cybereye'commentary: Cell phone numbers are the latest commodity being traded by data miners.

Cybereye columnist
William Jackson

Verizon Wireless recently issued a press release blasting a company that provides online background checks for data-mining and selling cell phone numbers.

Seattle-based Intelius not only does background checks and keeps tabs on sex offenders and other criminals, but also offers e-mail and phone number verification, including a new service to identify owners of cell phone numbers. This includes unlisted and unpublished numbers, residential and business, and even voice-over-IP numbers, at $14.95 a pop.

'Stop it,' Verizon general counsel Steve Zipperstein said in the release. 'This is a violation of Americans' privacy.'

It is hard to disagree with that. Personally, the idea of a background check makes my skin crawl and I'm not too thrilled about the number of ways Intelius has of tracing data back to me. Fortunately, the company charges for this service and I can't imagine that many people are going to be interested enough in me to spend even $14.95 to confirm a few boring details. (Note to readers: This is not a challenge. Please don't start looking up things about me just to show it can be done. I won't be impressed.)

But emotional reactions aside, the indignation expressed by Verizon Wireless over the issue of cell phone numbers raised a question. Why are they different? After all, Verizon publishes fat volumes filled with thousands of home and business phone numbers and delivers them to my sidewalk several times a year. I'm all for privacy, but what is the rational distinction between a cell phone number and other numbers which are routinely compiled and readily available?

It's a matter of personal expectation, said Verizon Wireless spokeswoman Debra Lewis (after consulting with company lawyers). 'People expect their cell phone numbers to be private.' There also is a practical aspect to this, she said. 'For the most part, when people get incoming calls or messages on their cell phones, they pay for them.'

That is the rationale behind provisions of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which in 1991 outlawed autodialed calls and recorded calls to cell phones or other services in which the recipient is charged for the call. It also outlawed fax spamming and created company 'do not call' lists. This last provision was expanded in 2003 to the national 'do not call list.'

So cell phones, along with phones in hospitals and nursing homes and emergency phone lines, really are special as far as the Federal Communications Commission is concerned. But in spite of these restrictions on how they are used, there are no limits on compiling or looking up these numbers, or on selling and publishing them.

One of the benefits of a cell phone is that you can be reached any time, any place, and so misuse of the number can be more of an intrusion than on a conventional landline. 'We have a history of trying to stop telephone spammers and telemarketers,' Lewis said of Verizon Wireless.

The possibilities for intrusion are only going to grow. With the addition of new functionality such as Global Positioning System and Internet connectivity in mobile phones, data miners could tell where you are and have been, and what your Internet interests are. Listening in on a phone call still is illegal, but if a company is using the location of your cell phone to push ads to it about businesses in the area, there are no restrictions on how it can use that information it has gathered about your location.

Should we care? The younger generations growing up with IP-enabled cell phones might not. As the Web becomes more interactive and more of a necessary utility, the concept of privacy is likely to morph. 'I don't think there is any expectation of privacy in Web 2.0,' David Marcus, security research manager at McAfee Avert labs, said recently.

As more consumers abandon landlines and make cells their primary phones, how long will the expectation of cellular privacy last?

'That's a tough one,' Lewis said. 'It's hard to say.'

What is easy to say is that consumers should have some say in how information gleaned from online and on-air activities is used, and so far there is little legal framework in this country to provide that.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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