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AT&T Database Reveals Unlisted Names From Numbers
Yet another reason for cash settled IP telephony?
Actually, you can trace an IP address just as well, can't you?...
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Date: Wed, 14 Jan 1998 18:58:10 -0800 (PST)
From: Phil Agre <[email protected]>
To: [email protected]
Subject: AT&T Database Reveals Unlisted Names From Numbers
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Date: Wed, 14 Jan 98 12:38 PST
From: [email protected] (PRIVACY Forum)
Subject: PRIVACY Forum Digest V07 #02
PRIVACY Forum Digest Wednesday, 14 January 1998 Volume 07 : Issue 02
Date: Tue, 13 Jan 98 10:05 PST
From: [email protected] (Lauren Weinstein; PRIVACY Forum Moderator)
Subject: AT&T Database Reveals Unlisted Names From Numbers
Greetings. In a memorable scene from the 1975 film "Three Days of the
Condor," CIA agent-on-the-run Joe Turner, played by Robert Redford, monitors
a phone line with a telephone test set (known in telco parlance as a "butt
set" or more popularly a "butt-in"). After taping and determining the touch-
tone digits being dialed, he makes a call to an "operator" who provides the
name and address of the party associated with that dialed number.
His exchange with that operator was completely authentic. For decades
telephone companies have operated "Customer Name and Address" bureaus, known
colloquially as "CNA" bureaus. Presented with a phone number, the CNA
operators provide name and address data, even for unlisted or non-published
numbers. This service was and is ostensibly only for telephone company
use. The telcos rightly considered this information sensitive, and CNA
access numbers were always subject to frequent changing, but still leaked
out. They were highly coveted by private detectives, phone phreaks, and
others, for various investigative or even harassing purposes (few things can
upset a person who thinks they have an unlisted number more than a bizarre
call from an unknown person in the dead of night who knows their name...)
Over the years, telephone subscribers have become more aware of the various
commercial and other purposes to which their telephone listings have been
subjected, and increasing percentages of folks have unlisted
("non-published" or "non-pub") numbers. In states like California, the
majority of numbers are non-pub. Telephone company literature usually
states that a non-pub status (for which subscribers now typically have to
pay an extra monthly fee) also protects them from so-called "upside-down"
listings and services--essentially published versions of CNA that provide
listings in telephone number and/or house address order. Clearly the telcos
realize that people are still very sensitive about their names and/or
addresses being looked up by number.
So it was with considerable concern late last year when I learned of an
easily accessible AT&T database that provides a major portion of CNA--the
provision of names from numbers, even for unlisted or non-published numbers.
I have been engaged in a dialogue with various AT&T officials concerning this
database since then. Getting an official response has taken some time (the
holidays didn't help of course), and I've been told that I'm the first
person to ever bring this issue to their attention (a familiar enough
refrain when it comes to privacy issues...)
The database in question is a "service" (which AT&T says is greatly
appreciated by their customers) which ostensibly exists to allow automated
access to number information by business customers. AT&T long distance
business customers, upon calling their designated customer service number
from their bills, enter a typical complex voice mail maze. After entering
their main AT&T account number into the system, one of the choices available
relates to "if you do not recognize a number on your bill." Choosing this
option drops the user into an automated system which allows the direct
entering of phone numbers.
For each number entered, the system then attempts to read out (using a voice
synthesizer) the name associated with that number. An option is also
available to spell out the name, since text-to-speech handling of proper
names can be less than optimal (remind me to tell the story of my
"Touch-Tone Unix" synthesizer system from the '70's someday). The number
entry/readout sequence can be repeated (apparently) as many times as desired.
The need for a customer to find out who is associated with a truly unknown
number on their bill can be a real one. Unfortunately, this database has a
variety of negative characteristics:
-- The database does not limit lookups to numbers actually on the customer's
bill! Any numbers can be entered, and the system will usually provide the
associated name, even if they are not on the current (or any) bill.
Presence or absence from the bill is totally irrelevant.
-- The database provides data for unlisted or non-published numbers
just as happily as for listed numbers. This includes corporate
internal numbers, modem and fax lines, residential second lines,
and so on.
-- For listed numbers, the database sometimes provides not the name
associated with the listing, but rather the name of the *person* who is
apparently the "billing contact" for the listed entity and usually has
nothing whatever to do with the listing itself!
To quote from the official response I received from the AT&T media relations
representative with whom I have been in contact about these concerns:
"As a matter of policy, AT&T safeguards customer information from
unauthorized access. It is also our policy to allow business
customers to access their account-billing records to check the
accuracy of their records and to request changes, as necessary, by
using an automated system. Until now, questions such as yours have
never come up, so we want to thank you very much for bringing your
concerns to our attention.
The system has been in use for several years and, in our
search for ways to improve the accuracy, timeliness and cost-
effectiveness of the services we offer customers, we had
already begun evaluating a number of options.
Your inquiry has hastened our considerations of new ways
to offer capabilities that our business customers value while
safeguarding private customer information from unauthorized
access. So, again, we thank you for bringing this issue to our
What this really means in terms of actual changes is decidedly unclear. No
date is specified for any alterations, nor have they explained in any manner
what sorts of customer privacy changes (if any) will be made, nor how any
new system might differ from the current one.
In the meantime, I have been told that they do not intend to alter the
operations of the current database in any manner. I have suggested
suspending or limiting the current system as a clear move to help protect
telephone subscribers' privacy. AT&T has chosen not to do so. They point
out that the database is not "intended" for other than the lookup of unknown
numbers on the bills, and that they consider any other use to be improper.
However, such improper uses will continue to be completely possible under
the current system.
My overall impression is that AT&T feels people aren't concerned about number
to name lookups, and that AT&T doesn't see what harm such information could
do in any case. This sort of "What harm could it do?" attitude is one that
PRIVACY Forum readers have seen repeatedly with commercial databases of
various sorts. It of course is important that persons make their feelings
about such issues known once they come to light. If people don't bother
to complain, faulting the commercial database policies themselves becomes
considerably more problematical.
Others may agree, or perhaps disagree, with AT&T's apparent attitudes about
this matter. It seems likely that more persons expressing their opinion,
either positive or negative about the system, would be useful to AT&T in
helping to gauge public feelings about such matters. AT&T has told me
specifically that the appropriate venue for such opinions would be AT&T
Executive Resolution, at (908) 221-4191 (8-5 PM Eastern--I'm told that
collect calls are accepted during those business hours).
All too often, we see that the implementation of potentially useful services
is done in a manner that produces undesirable (and often unintended)
negative privacy side-effects. A key issue is to what extent an entity
responds to privacy concerns, even when they might not agree with them,
after they've been made aware of the issues. So far, I'm afraid that AT&T's
response to this situation has not been stellar.
Moderator, PRIVACY Forum
End of PRIVACY Forum Digest 07.02
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Robert Hettinga ([email protected]), Philodox
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