To the great privacy wars of the information age, California is about to add a deceptively simple, hotly controversial piece of telephone technology known as Caller ID.
Its function could hardly be more straightforward: Phone lines equipped with Caller ID make it possible to see the originating phone number of an incoming call. It's not exactly an untested technology. After Caller ID was rolled out in Hawaii last week, California became the only state in the union where the service is not available.
But at a time when constantly expanding, easily accessible computer databases are steadily eroding the treasured commodity known as personal privacy, many see the June 1 introduction of Caller ID in the Golden State as a lamentable, even disastrous form of progress.
No matter that everyone will have the option of blocking the transmission of their telephone numbers, either permanently or on a per-call basis. No matter that anyone calling an 800 or 900 number already is revealing their phone number. No matter that the privacy question can cut both ways: Why, other than tradition, should a caller--perhaps a telemarketer or a heavy breather or even an annoying in-law--have the right to interrupt one's domestic routines anonymously?
Privacy advocates remain unmoved. They say the telephone companies are shamelessly disregarding the rights of their customers for the sake of tens of millions of dollars in new revenue. Much of that money will be ponied up by businesses, who will subscribe to Caller ID in order to log customer phone numbers.
"The main agenda here is to turn your phone number into a Social Security number, so that when you call a Caller ID-equipped business, your number is connected to a database and your profile comes up on a computer screen," said Evan Hendricks, editor of the Washington, D.C., newsletter Privacy Times.
With Caller ID, businesses can create lists that could lead to unsolicited calls from telemarketers or to less intrusive sales pitches in the form of junk mail. With a phone number, it is possible to use a reverse directory to find the address and name of a caller.
Opponents of Caller ID like to point to the tragic case of Kerisha Harps. The 21-year-old San Antonio woman was shot to death last March by her ex-boyfriend hours after she called him on the telephone. His phone was equipped with Caller ID, and he used it to trace her whereabouts.
Since New Jersey became the first state to authorize Caller ID in 1987, regulators nationwide have wrestled with the privacy implications of the service--and especially the crucial question of whether people should have the right to block transmission of their numbers.
Phone companies initially opposed any form of blocking, because the more people block their numbers, the less useful the service becomes. But in California, it was always a question not of whether blocking would be permitted, but what kind. Without blocking, the more than 50% of Californians who have unlisted phone numbers would find it harder to keep their numbers private.
Over the vehement objections of Pacific Bell and GTE, the state Public Utilities Commission eventually opted in favor of the most stringent of blocking regimes: All phone lines would be blocked all the time unless customers took specific action to unblock their lines.
But as the technology was put in place to make Caller ID function for long-distance calls, the Federal Communications Commission took an interest in the issue--and decided last year that California's rules were too stringent. The state sued to overturn the FCC decision, but a federal appellate court in January sided with the agency.
Thus California customers who want to block their lines permanently will have to call the phone company and request it. On an unblocked line, transmission of numbers can be blocked on individual calls by dialing *67 before placing the call. (Calls can be unblocked on a case-by-case basis by dialing *82, and customers with rotary phones can dial 1182 and 1167.)
The Public Utilities Commission ordered the phone companies to conduct a massive public education campaign to inform phone customers--especially non-published ones--about the onset of Caller ID and the blocking options. Tens of thousands of customers inundated Pacific Bell when it launched its educational campaign Feb. 12. The company originally had staffed 375 operators to answer questions and added another 60 to their ranks the next day, said Joan Mataraci, Pacific Bell's product manager for Caller ID.
GTE has assigned 150 customer service representatives to handle calls from its California customers. GTE began running full-page newspaper ads Feb. 14 and received 8,600 calls from customers that day, said spokeswoman Carrie Hyun.
Caller ID opponents, who hope that so many people will choose blocking the service that it will be effectively useless, say the massive consumer response vindicates their position.
"Our position was proven right when the phone companies were overwhelmed by the response to their informational ads," said Nettie Hoge, executive director of Toward Utility Rate Normalization, which supported the Public Utilities Commission. "They said they were surprised that so many people wanted blocking, but we weren't surprised. Once they understand what this is, they don't want it to happen."
Besides, she said, Caller ID is "a stupid product. Maybe you want to see who's calling you, but it's a lot cheaper and more effective to just monitor your answering machine."
The phone companies, of course, disagree. Dane Pascoe, Pacific Bell's manager of corporate communications, says fears about an unwelcome invasion of privacy are blown out of proportion.
He recommends that concerned customers conduct a simple experiment: "Write down everyone they call over a two- or three-week period and see which of those people they would really want not to have their phone number." He predicts that the number will be much smaller than expected.
And in some respects Caller ID can enhance privacy. "You want to manage who's coming into your home," said Jeff Cline, vice president of sales and marketing for Colonial Data Technologies, a Connecticut firm that sells phones and devices equipped for Caller ID services. "When you go to the front door, you look outside before you answer it. If someone is wearing a mask, why would you open the door?" he said. "You have the same right with your telephone to decide not to answer the phone if the caller is unwilling to tell you who they are."
And if you want to enforce that right, you can opt for Block the Blocker, a service sold by Colonial Data and other companies. When a specially equipped phone receives a call from someone who has blocked their phone number--presumed to be a telemarketer or an unsavory character--the phone will not ring and will tell the caller that the person does not accept calls from people who block their numbers.
"It keeps escalating," Hendricks said. "First you get Caller ID. Then you get blocking. Then you get Block the Blocker. In the meantime, the phone company gets all the money."
Pacific Bell is pricing Caller ID at $6.50 for residential customers and $7.50 and up for business, plus a one-time $5 activation charge. The San Francisco-based company expects to sign up about 2% of its 12 million California customers by the end of the year.
GTE is planning to charge between $7 and $10 for the service--depending on whether the customer is a residence or a business--and hopes to sell the service to as many as 30% of its 3.5 million customers in the state.
Those who order Caller ID will need to buy special phones--ranging in price from $60 to more than $250--with a digital display for the number of the incoming call. Or they can purchase small three-by-five-inch boxes with small screens, costing about $25, that can be plugged into existing phones.
Estimates on the proportion of phone customers who have ordered Caller ID nationwide vary from 7% to 20%. Bell Atlantic says it has "well over 1.5 million Caller ID subscribers," and BellSouth claims another 2 million. But most of the states in those two regional phone companies' territories have less stringent blocking rules than California.
It is ironic in light of the passion surrounding the issue that Caller ID does not mark the first time that Californians will reveal their phone numbers to the people they call. Since 1989, operators of 800 and 900 numbers have been allowed to capture the phone numbers of callers through a system called Automatic Number Identification. Lists of people who call such numbers are often sold for $30 per thousand names.
But Caller ID has sparked a public debate that could just as well be fought over any of the multitude of ways that technology clashes with personal privacy.
"It just happened that the controversy blew up with Caller ID," said Rohan Samaragiva, an assistant professor of communications at Ohio State University who has studied Caller ID. "The basic issue is not Caller ID, but there's a heightened understanding now about the technologically complex privacy issues.
"A lot of our routine transactions can be captured by computers," Samaragiva said. "People can learn about us based on who we talk to, which shops we go to, which books we read and what movies we watch. We don't have much control over much of that transaction-generated information."