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I.D., E.G.O., S.U.P.E.R.E.G.O.

[Originally published 1996 |
Updated here 1999.06.24]

Caller identification, otherwise known as caller ID or call display, has enmeshed itself in the everyday lives of millions of Canadians. With caller ID, the phone number of whoever is calling you appears on a display attached to your telephone. In some cases, the caller's name will be displayed, too. But the history of caller ID in Canada-- and its belated introduction in California, set for June 1, 1996-- highlights the contentiousness of mixing corporate profits, technological advancement, and personal privacy.

The main societal benefit of caller ID as advanced by phone companies is reducing "annoying or harassing" calls. Bell claimed that 70% of its customers had received "annoying or harassing" calls, but a key 1990 CRTC decision on caller ID did not cite research from any entity demonstrating that such calls were always or usually sexually explicit, threatening, or legally actionable as opposed to simple wrong numbers. The CRTC dismissed the objections of many intervenors and authorized caller ID for Bell and most other provincial telephone monopolies in 1990 and 1991.

Privacy issues have always been part of the discussion of caller ID. For a century, telephone users had come to expect that their phone number would be given out only if they explicitly allowed it to be-- by having it published in the phone book and/or listed through directory assistance (two separate provisions in some provinces) and/or by knowingly giving it out to friends, family, and colleagues.

But overnight, caller ID reversed that expectation: Now the onus was on the calling party to block disclosure of his or her phone number, which in Bell territory the early days required going through an operator and paying a fee of 75 cents per call. Even unlisted numbers would be displayed in Bell Canada territory unless blocked via an operator. The major CRTC decisions relating to caller ID cited no data showing a clear desire from residential customers to have their numbers made available to anyone willing and able to pay their local telephone monopoly for caller-ID service.

But in its own early provision of caller ID, AGT Ltd. in Alberta offered so-called per-call and per-line blocking of phone numbers. With the former, dialing 1167 or *67 before the actual telephone number blocked display of the originating number for that call only. With the latter, all calls from a given line took place without displaying the originating number. AGT data showed that no more than 0.2% of its customers ever used per-call blocking; the figure for per-line blocking was 0.04%. In 1992, the CRTC ordered Bell and several other phone companies to provide free per-call blocking to all subscribers, arguing, in effect, that it would not be used so frequently as to render caller ID moot.

Finally, in 1994, the CRTC authorized Bell and some other telcos to display the name of the calling party as well as the number (for a fee above and beyond the caller-ID monthly charge), but the CRTC required the telephone companies to allow subscribers to take the free-of-charge action of permanently substituting the words "Private name" or "Nom secret" for their real names in all calls, blocked or not. If, however, you retained a listing in the phone book or directory assistance, your name would not be replaced there with "Private name" or "Nom secret."

Campbell Laidlaw, manager of competitive access at the CRTC in Hull, notes that "obviously there are going to be varying schools of thought, some competing, as to the efficacy or validity of any given piece of technology.... I guess the point is that the technology is available, and because some people have a demand for it, the service has been provided." The regulator, Laidlaw states, could have maintained anonymity by prohibiting caller ID, "but then many consumers would have said, 'You have no right to censor the technology in this way. I/We [sic] will decide whether to use it or not.'

"People... are not going to have their lives run for them by regulators."

Officials from Bell Canada and Stentor Telecom Policy Inc., the think-tank supported by the provincial telephone monopolies, had not been reached by press time. But as Shirley Fullerton, product manager of residential services at NB Tel in Saint John notes, "our experience certainly is that we do not get a large number of complaints from people about the delivery of their name and number that are not satisfied with the [privacy] options available to them. We believe we have struck a reasonable balance." NB Tel appears to be unique in North America in blocking display of all unlisted numbers-- in effect, giving per-line blocking to all unlisted subscribers-- since the introduction of caller ID in New Brunswick in 1991. 25% of NB Tel residential customers subscribe to caller-ID service; no more than 4% have unlisted numbers. "We haver smaller communities and perhaps different concerns" from those of bigger cities, Fullerton notes.

However, in California, where fully 50% of its 32 million residents have unpublished numbers, security is a big issue. Caller ID will be introduced to California for the first time ever this June 1. All residential subscribers may choose between per-call or per-line blocking; the former will be the default setting if a subscriber does not make an express choice with the phone company, whether the subscriber's number is published or unpublished. (Those who select per-line blocking can explicitly reveal their numbers on a given call by prefacing the phone number with 1182 or *82.) When advised that per-line blocking is virtually unavailable in Canada, Dianne Dienstein of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), which regulates intrastate telephone companies, quipped "You must have a strong phone lobby up there."

CPUC attorney Mark Fogelman notes that "California... is probably the most privacy-conscious state in the United States," with privacy protections written into its constitution. He expresses fears that many customers-- a minimum of 30%, in his estimation-- will not have heard the news about the advent of caller ID and understood their blocking options, meaning that several million residents with unpublished numbers may find those numbers being inadvertently disclosed starting June 1.

"It really seems as though what is involved here is the issue of corporate profits against personal privacy. It just seems to the CPUC that it's not good policy to enrich the corporation or make the service more valuable at the expense of people whose individual rights are given out without their knowledge or consent.... You don't make your service successful by essentially taking the private information and making it available" without people's consent, he says.