WASHINGTON — AT present it's a question without a definite answer: How can Americans take advantage of new technology to find out who is phoning them - while letting callers who want to protect their privacy and thus their anonymity do so? A new electronic device, called Caller ID, is being made available in of several states. Rented from the phone company, a box atop a ringing telephone automatically displays the number of the party placing the call - unless the caller subscribes to a service, sometimes also for a fee, that prevents his number from being shown.
As these devices are increasingly put into use, privacy experts, members of Congress, telephone company executives, and average Americans are debating the question of technology and a sense of protection, especially for persons victimized by obscene or threatening phone calls, versus a desire for personal privacy.
As with almost any discussion that involves untested technology and society, this issue is being debated long enough for other underlying themes to emerge. In this case they include perceptions versus fact, and the theory of a new program versus the way it actually works.
``Most everyone believes that Caller ID is a good service and I agree,'' says Sen. Herbert Kohl (D) of Wisconsin. ``But the question is, in what form should it spread?''
`Voluntary or forced?'
Senator Kohl sees two choices. ``Should there be `forced Caller ID,' in which the phone company requires our phone numbers to be displayed every time we make a call - even if we have an unlisted number?
``Or should there be `voluntary caller ID,' in which consumers continue to decide when it's appropriate to give out their numbers?''
Kohl wants the latter, and has introduced a Senate bill to require phone companies to permit callers to block out their number if they so desire. This week the Senate Subcommittee on Technology and the Law held a hearing on the broad issue, including Kohl's proposal.
``It's a polarized world,'' says John Stangland, assistant vice president of Pacific Bell. ``People tend to go one way or the other on this policy'' about Caller ID. Like Kohl he favors allowing phone callers to block out their numbers on any phone call on which they wish.
Phone companies and other proponents for Caller ID say, in the words of New Jersey Bell's president James Cullen, that the program has ``been very, very effective in deterring obscene phone calls'' in communities which thus far have tried it. In New Jersey ``the majority of these calls ... are 2:00 a.m. calls from kids, crank calls,'' Mr. Cullen says. In areas where Caller ID exists would-be callers are deterred from phoning because they don't know whether the target might have the device in operation, and thus immediately learn their identity.
Phone company officials argue that having Caller ID gives the victims of such calls, the important perception of being safe from them. New Jersey Bell's surveys of persons who have caller ID find ``a great number of our customers say they feel more secure'' for having the service, Cullen says.
Kohl agrees on the problems: battered women fear being tracked by their abusive husbands, social workers and other professionals want to keep their home phone numbers private from clients, and privacy experts fear identifying a person's phone calls would lead to tracking his buying patterns and personal lifestyle. But Kohl contends that phone companies already have technology that allows police to trace immediately the numbers of obscene callers, an alternative to Caller ID without the privacy problems.
In actual practice the call tracing program is far less effective than Caller ID as a deterrent, fire back Cullen and Stacy Blazer, who were terrorized for more than a year by frequent obscene and threatening phone calls. Only police can carry out the tracing program, and police ``have higher priorities'' than investigating obscene calls, Cullen says. Many police departments tell people who receive phone calls that unless they have received five calls the police will not act against the caller, he adds.
``The police say: `Call the phone company,' '' says Mrs. Blazer. ``The phone company says: `Call the police.' ''