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What Price Privacy?

Some 50,000 unlisted California telephone numbers and addresses were mistakenly published in directories that were subsequently leased to telemarketers? Gee.

No, GTE.

The state’s second-largest phone company, GTE Corp., apparently got wind of this huge blunder more than one month ago. That’s apparently when the company began receiving calls from the irate owners of those unlisted telephone numbers. The customers were experiencing a suspicious increase in sales calls and asked the telemarketers how they had obtained the private information. Why, they were printed in the GTE street directories, customers were told.

That mistake was bad enough in a state in which residents jealously guard against what seems to be an almost constant assault on their personal privacy. What made matters far worse was the long lag time, more than a month, between when GTE learned of the problem and its efforts to retrieve the directories, efforts that began only in the last few days. On Friday, GTE was just getting around to calling customers who might have been affected.

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GTE acknowledges the mistake but was responding to customers by doing an Ebenezer Scrooge imitation. On Friday, the company was offering a new unlisted phone number, a year without charges for that number and $25. That’s not very satisfying given the annoyance and inconvenience, not to mention the fear of some who have unlisted numbers because of serious safety concerns.

The California Public Utilities Commission is investigating. GTE might pay in other ways. A spokesperson for the commission said that the PUC could levy fines of up to $20,000 per customer for revealing confidential customer information. If found grossly negligent, GTE could also be forced to pay up to $10,000 each in damages, the spokesperson said.

It’s about time that someone upped the ante for releasing private information and for waiting too long to correct the mistake.


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