REMEMBER Lily Tomlin's zany telephone operator Ernestine, from TV's 1960s ``Laugh-In''? Her nonsensical inquiry to customers was: ``Is this the party to whom I am speaking?'' Today, Ernestine's customers probably would have Caller ID, a device that would allow them - and the party to whom they were speaking - to electronically identify each other, by phone number, without asking questions.
Caller ID, which is being challenged now in several states as well as in Congress, presents a dilemma to millions of Americans who would like to know who is telephoning them before they pick up their receivers. Many of these same people also would prefer to keep their own identities confidential.
Proponents of Caller ID are, among others, phone companies who stand to profit by offering this service; businesses who use the numbers to get at other information about individuals; and law enforcement agencies and those who provide emergency services to locate people in danger or those making obscene or harassing calls. Individuals may decide not to answer the phone after seeing the sender's number.
Opponents of the system say their objections are based on other privacy considerations, such as disclosure of calls made to and from shelters for battered women, and calls from medical doctors, social workers, and law enforcement officials who wish to keep their identities and locations confidential.
Those who would outlaw, or at least limit, Caller ID cite that it is an intrusion on an individual's constitutional right of privacy. Privacy is not specifically spelled out in the US Bill of Rights, but it is implied in the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Ninth Amendments.
Most privacy claims can be traced to the legal philosophy of the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who in 1928 established the concept of ``the right to be let alone.'' Using a standard of ``reasonable expectation'' of privacy, courts have allowed or struck down police searches and warrantless wiretaps in specific situations.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), long a watchdog over potential intrusions on private actions, is advocating amendments to the Federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act that would authorize Caller ID only where callers can block the display of their numbers. Bills in both the House and the Senate are scheduled for hearing this summer.
JanLore Goldman, ACLU's legislative counsel, says this legislation, if passed, ``would strike a fair balance between the competing privacy interests of makers and receivers of phone calls, providing the parties ... the ability to receive and control information.''
This proposal would establish at the federal level uniform standards for control, placing the burden on individual choice, where it should be.
States are still debating the issue - with some allowing Caller ID with or without the option of blocking devices and others outlawing the practice.
On May 30, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania flatly struck down Caller ID as illegal and unconstitutional under its state law.
Ruling against Pennsylvania's Public Utility Commission, this court said that Caller ID is a ``trap and trace'' device prohibited by Pennsylvania's state Wiretap Act without a court order or consent of all parties to a conversation.
Regardless of what happens in Congress, the US Supreme Court will likely have to eventually adjudicate Caller ID.
Little did Ernestine ever imagine that her ``one ringy dingy'' would reach a level of constitutional debate.