A business traveler waits in line at O'Hare International Airport to board a Delta Airlines flight to Atlanta when his mobile phone rings. Thinking it is a personal call or business matter, he takes the call, but discovers it is a telemarketer, cold-calling from a credit card company, wanting to know if he would like to consolidate his cards.
What sounds like an improbable scenario might become an all-too-frequent reality in the near future, technology experts told United Press International.
Concerns are emerging that a proposed national, wireless-directory-assistance project could threaten the privacy of millions of mobile-phone users whose numbers currently are unlisted.
A consortium of five of the six major wireless carriers - Cingular Wireless, Nextel, Sprint, AT&T Wireless and T-Mobile - is moving forward with plans to create a national 411 service of all of their mobile-phone subscribers. Only Verizon Wireless thus far is refusing to participate.
Last week, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, took up the matter. He sent a letter to the chief executive officers of the five companies, demanding answers.
If you offer wireless directory services, will your subscribers be given a choice of whether to have their numbers listed in a directory or not? McCain inquired in the Sept. 15 letter, a copy of which was provided to UPI by the senator's staff.
Do you plan to charge subscribers to keep their wireless numbers unlisted? he also asked.
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, McCain's counterpart in the House of Representatives, co-signed the letter.
The companies that responded to the queries stated they will only list the mobile-phone numbers of customers who opt-in to the database, and will not charge a fee to those who do not want to be listed, according to letters reviewed by UPI.
Protecting our customer privacy is one of our highest priorities, and this commitment is reflected in our approach to wireless 411, said John D. Zeglis, chairman and CEO of AT&T Wireless in a letter dated Sept. 23.
Zeglis said there are several reasons why the mobile carriers are banding together now to provide the directory-assistance database. Many small businesses, he said, use wireless phones as their primary means of communication with customers and vendors.
We do not believe that this technology choice should put a business at a disadvantage in comparison to competitors that utilize landline phones and can therefore list their phone numbers, the Zeglis letter said.
By having a national wireless directory, these smaller firms could make their mobile-phone numbers available to prospects and customers, Zeglis added.
Additionally, the Zeglis letter said, a growing number of consumers use wireless phones as their only phone. We believe there are customers who will choose to participate in wireless 411 for the peace of mind that comes with having their phone number accessible in an urgent situation.
A leading telecommunications analyst was skeptical of the idea, however, saying he worried that consumer privacy could be violated quite easily.
I don't think people are asking for this service, said Derek Kerton, a telecom analyst with the Kerton Group, located in San Jose, Calif. If they offered it, it would irritate more customers than it would please. The privacy issues are absolutely legitimate.
Kerton said his concern was over the ownership of any database of names and numbers of mobile-phone users.
You have to make it a closed database - and ensure that it can never be sold as a book or a database, or telemarketers will get their hands on it, Kerton told UPI. Then there are security issues and inter-operability issues.
Each of the carriers has different standards, different fields of information. To accomplish this technologically, a national clearinghouse would have to be created.
Kerton, who noted he is no fan of federal regulation, said he thought some sort of government rules would have to be employed to guard against privacy violations.
There needs to be some loose regulation, he said. What are they going to do if the database is outsourced to China? There are a lot of risks for security, not just technology.
Another expert said the privacy concerns might be overwrought.
There's a lot of spin over privacy, Jeff Popoff, vice president of marketing at Redknee Inc., a software supplier to the telecom industry in San Jose, Calif., told UPI. But only 20 percent of people with landline service are unlisted today.
Popoff said the opt-in and opt-out provisions that the mobile carriers are espousing are enough to ensure consumer numbers remain secluded.
A leading telecommunications attorney disputed that notion. Consumers have different privacy expectations for wireless than for landline, said Mitchell Brecher, a telecom attorney at Greenberg Traurig, a firm in the Washington, D.C., metro area.
All of this is complicated by the fact that for a small, but growing, portion of the population - especially younger adults - wireless is their only telephone service, Brecher told UPI.
Consumers Union, the activist group, said Congress should pass legislation to give consumers complete control over their mobile-phone numbers - before the national wireless carriers have time to move forward with their plans.
Consumers want control over who gets their cell-phone number, and they should decide, not the wireless industry, said Susanna Montezemolo, a legislative analyst with CU, in a statement released to the news media Sept. 21.
Verizon Wireless - the sole carrier not participating in the consortium - agrees there are privacy issues, and its CEO, Dennis F. Strigl, called the prospect of a national directory service for wireless-phone users a controversial subject in recent testimony on Capitol Hill.
The Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, the industry's trade group, is backing the national wireless-411 concept enthusiastically.
The group said any eventual directory assistance database will be built to provide more protection to consumers than even the Federal Trade Commission's do-not call list.
A consumer will have the only say in whether their number will be made available in the database, CTIA spokesman John Walls told UPI.
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