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Caller ID Provides a Telephone Peephole


SUPPOSE I live in a city apartment. Someone knocks at the door. I look through the peephole to see who's there - only to find the peephole covered by a thumb. Does the law let him do that? Of course. Should I let him in? Hardly.

Suppose I have a telephone. Someone calls. I check a small screen that displays the phone number of the person making the call - a service already available in some areas. But the caller has electronically ``blocked'' his number from being displayed.

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Does the law let him do that? In some states, yes. Should I answer? Hardly.

The controversy surrounding ``caller identification,'' which uses the latest digital telephone equipment to trace and display the number of each incoming call, hinges on that analogy. To some, caller ID restores a precious quality that disappeared when the telephone began replacing face-to-face conversation: the ability to find out who wants to talk to you before you answer. It provides, at last, an electronic peephole.

But to others the service represents an invasion of privacy. It reveals unlisted numbers. And it prevents legitimately anonymous calls (to report a crime, say, or to call a battered women's shelter, or to phone a social worker) from remaining private.

There's merit in both arguments. New Jersey, which now offers caller ID, has seen a drop in obscene and harassing phone calls. Last month in Jamestown, Va., where caller ID is also in service, a man was arrested for making such a call.

California, on the other hand, now requires phone companies offering the service to make available a second feature allowing callers to block their numbers from being displayed. A bill now before the United States Senate, the Telephone Privacy Act of 1990, would require similar blocking provisions on a national level.

At issue on both sides is privacy, which must be protected for callers having good reason to remain anonymous, but must also be protected for individuals who don't want their lives invaded by unwanted calls. The new legislation, unfortunately, could neutralize the benefits of caller ID and quickly put the obscene callers back in business.

The answer may lie in yet another tweak of the technology. Why not offer, along with caller ID and ID blocking, a third service?

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Why not allow me, by dialing a certain code into my phone, to shunt every unidentified call off to a recorded announcement that tells the would-be caller, ``I'm sorry: The number you have reached will not accept unidentified calls. If you wish to make this call, please unblock your caller identification.''?

Why not set it up, in fact, to maximize my privacy - so that unidentified calls won't even ring on my phone?

For most residential customers, the virtues of such a system are as obvious for the phone as for the apartment peephole: If the outsider won't identify himself, why on earth would I want to answer?

But police phones, shelters, businesses? That's another matter. They don't need to subscribe to the third service. Anyone calling them, with or without a blocked ID, should be able to get through.

But what about occasions when I'm being called from overseas, from an unlisted number, or from a region that doesn't yet have the identification technology?

Again, I suspect the answer is a technical one. Each of those cases should generate a special signal on my screen, alerting me to the nature of the source and letting me decide whether or not to pick up.

The plain truth is that for too long the phone itself has been an unwarranted invasion of privacy. Caller ID may be only one-third of a loaf. Call blocking may be the next third. We'll have the whole loaf when those with the courage to identify themselves - and nobody else - can make my number ring. -30-{et

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