Call Identification feature sparks invasion-of-privacy charges
Boston — Some people just don't want telephone calls from strangers, especially salespeople, survey organizations, and anyone making harassing calls. Many people have tried to solve this problem by taking their number out of circulation. Partly in an effort to help these telephone customers, and to introduce its latest technical advances, New Jersey Bell has come up with an array of telephone features, three of which would allow subscribers to reduce and even stop harassing calls.
One of those features, Call Identification, at a cost of $6.50 a month for residents, displays the phone number of an incoming call on a small screen hooked to the telephone. ``It's a way for customers to see who's at the door before opening it,'' says a company spokeswoman.
Opponents counter that it constitutes an invasion of privacy, as well as a breach of contract to those customers who paid New Jersey Bell to keep their phone numbers confidential.
Concern that Call Identification will identify previously unlisted callers, thereby violating their desire for privacy, led to a public hearing on the matter.
The state Board of Public Utilities was scheduled to vote yesterday on whether to allow New Jersey Bell to test-market all seven of its proposed features on a two-year trial basis in Atlantic City and the Hudson County suburb of New York.
No opposition to the six other features proposed for test marketing has been raised.
Indeed, opponents say, blocking and tracing calls - two of those six - are much more effective at stopping annoying calls than Call Identification.
With Call Block, a customer receiving a harassing phone call can dial a code which will prevent that number from ever calling again, explains James Carrigan, a spokesman at New Jersey Bell.
Call Trace allows the phone company to record the number of a phone just after it was used to make an obscene call. This number can then be sent to the police if needed.
But neither of these features reveals the number of the caller to the person receiving the call, says Raymond Makul, director of the public advocate's Division of Rate Counsel. While you may be able to see the number of your caller with Call Identification, Mr. Makul says, you can't stop the person from calling you.
Call Identification's benefits don't outweigh its potential for abuse, Makul says. Telephone numbers ``could wind up in the hands of snoopy governmental agencies, tax agencies, or hot lines, which represent themselves as confidential agencies.''
``It could radically change the way we use the phone,'' he says.
Skeptics, however, point out that only the phone number, not the identity, of the caller is revealed. A friend may call from a strange number, Makul says, or a stranger can call from a number that looks familiar.
The service could also violate the agreement between New Jersey Bell and customers who paid extra for unpublished numbers. People with unlisted numbers might order merchandise over the phone, revealing their telephone number as they gave their order. Conceivably, those telephone numbers could then be sold to other merchandisers and marketing firms much the way home addresses are now.
This would open up ``a whole pool of potential customers to harass,'' says Edward Martone, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in New Jersey.
The service may also make it harder to fight crime. ``People are going to stop reporting instances of crime and child abuse if they are afraid of being identified,'' Mr. Martone says.
New Jersey Bell suggests that people should make anonymous calls to police and hot lines from phone booths if they're worried about that.
The company perceives that ``a greater right exists with the person who's receiving the call,'' says Heikki Leesment, staff member of the Board of Public Utilities.
There may be some validity to the objections, says the New Jersey State Police superintendent, Col. Clinton Pagano. ``But the fact that so many people have to hide their phone numbers is an indication there is a problem.''
``Harassing and terrorizing calls is one of our biggest problems,'' Colonel Pagano says.
A quarter of all New Jersey Bell's residential telephone subscribers have nonpublished numbers, spokesman Carrigan says. Half of these people told a survey that they would have no problem with Call Identification, he says. The telephone company also claims a six-month test of the service at an Atlantic City casino-hotel was successful.
Still, 40 percent of nonlisted New Jersey Bell subscribers were against the idea, Makul points out, which was enough opposition to bring about the public hearings.
New Jersey Bell expects 20,000 customers to subscribe to all seven of its services over a two-year period. While this would represent less than 10 percent of an estimated 240,000 customers in the Hudson County and Atlantic City areas, Mr. Carrigan says, it would be enough for the company to introduce it to the general public in late 1989.
Even as a practical matter, police superintendent Pagano says, Call Identification is handy. ``You just may not feel like talking to Aunt Minnie.''