Clearing the Air: Privacy Issues with Wireless 411

Carriers: Cell phone listings would be matter of choice.

Plans by U.S. wireless carriers to offer cell phone customers the option to list their numbers in a wireless 411 directory next year is spurring confusion, with ominous e-mail messages circulating that warn cell phone users their numbers will soon be made available to telemarketers.

The fear is unfounded, say carriers participating in the directory, which include Alltel Corp., Cingular Wireless LLC, Nextel Communications Inc., Sprint Corp. and T-Mobile USA Inc.

"We would never sell a list of customers numbers to telemarketers; we dont do that now, and we never will," said Sprint spokesperson Jennifer Walsh in Overland Park, Kan.

The cell phone numbers would not be published in a print or online version of the directory, said officials. Rather, the directory of cell phone numbers would be managed in a central database by a third-party company, Qsent Inc. When an inquiry is made for a number, Qsent would provide the carriers OSC (operator services company) access to the data. The OSC would not permanently store the subscribers information, said Qsent officials in Portland, Ore.

Further, say carriers, cell phone users would have to opt in to the service to have their numbers listed; they would also be able to opt out at any point.

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"Our position is that customers should have the choice. A small-business person who relies on his or her wireless phone as the main point of contact may very well be happy to pay for those calls because they could mean additional business. The question we ask is, Why shouldnt these customers have the right to list their numbers?" said Cingular spokesperson Clay Owens in Atlanta.

"We should be able to offer a choice to our customers, but our first and most important thing is maintaining customers privacy," said Nextel spokesperson Tim ORegan in Reston, Va.

Carriers also addressed concerns that the choice to opt in to the directory would be buried in the fine print of cellular service contracts. "It would be very obvious and clear," said Sprints Walsh.

Although it is already illegal for telemarketers to market to cell phone numbers, an additional deterrent for telemarketers is that carriers would charge callers about a dollar each time they wanted to obtain a subscribers cell phone number in the directory.

Consumers can also choose to list their numbers in the National Do Not Call Registry by calling (888) 382-1222 or visiting online.

Of concern for corporate IT managers is if users would be able to control whether to list their corporate cell phone numbers or whether that privilege would be determined and enforced by the IT manager. Wireless carriers say theyre still working those details out.

Not all carriers are opting to participate in the directory. Verizon Wireless, for example, says it has no plans to join the initiative. "Customers view their cell phones as the one place where they dont face intrusions, and they can control how to use the airtime minutes they pay for," said Verizon Wireless spokesperson Brenda Raney in Bedminster, N.J. "Regardless of whether its a friend calling or someone trying to sell you something, they consider their cell phones private. The other side is you pay for your wireless minutes, and because you pay for them, you should control who uses them.

"For businesses where the individual is using a wireless number as a primary means of contact, they can take out an ad and put any number they want in it," said Raney.

Small businesses, of course, have to pay to list their cell phone numbers in those directories, while they would be able to list numbers free in the wireless 411 directory.

According to recent surveys, cell phone users have mixed Opinions about a nationwide wireless directory. A survey of 1,503 wireless subscribers conducted by The Pierz Group, of Clarkston, Mich., last summer found that more than half of those polled would want their numbers listed in a free directory. A survey conducted in October by London-based research company Taylor Nelson Sofres plc. and sponsored by the San Francisco-based online privacy certification group TRUSTe, found that 53 percent of 1,068 consumers polled were against the establishment of a nationwide wireless directory and that 56 percent would not list their numbers.

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