Caller ID Privacy Options and Name Only

(Thoughts by Clifford Neuman - 7/24/2002)

Caller ID in its current form presents an interesting dilemma with respect to personal privacy. Caller ID promotes privacy by allowing a call recipient to choose whether to answer, yet it divulges personal information about the caller, diminishing privacy. The ability to block the transmission of caller ID information enhances the privacy of the caller, but as more individuals choose per-line blocking, it also diminishes the system-wide usefulness of the privacy enhancing aspects as well.

The biggest problem with caller ID (when not blocked) from a callers perspective is that it divulges not just the caller's identity, but also the caller's phone number, and for wired phone lines, this can in turn be used to determine location. For those with unlisted numbers, the number itself should be kept private.

One way around this dilemma would be to allow several additional options to the caller beside per-line blocking. A telephone customer should be granted the option to allow their name to be displayed only, without their phone number. Today I have my number blocked, but given a name only option I would choose it. I actually want the caller to know that it is me calling, since those who I call might be more likely to answer the phone than if the caller's identity was blocked.

Another option that should be supported is to allow a customer to specify an alternate number (in addition to their name) that would be displayed to the called party. To prevent abuse, when registering an alternate number, the phone companies would need to verify that the alternate number is really another number for the same customer. For example, I give my cell phone number to very few people and I specifically do not want that number divulged to most people I call from my cell phone, but I'd be quite happy to have my office number displayed so that they could return my call.

If these options were supported, we would find fewer people completely blocking caller-ID information on their lines and the privacy enhancing properties of caller ID would be more readily available. Ideally the FCC, state regulators, and phone companies will consider such enhancements in the future.