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Protecting Wireless Privacy

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Protecting Wireless Privacy

By Congressman Joe Pitts

We've all experienced it. You're sitting down to dinner with your family or getting comfortable on the couch for your favorite TV show, and the phone rings. On the other end is some nameless telemarketer, eager to give you the opportunity to buy something you didn't know you couldn't live without.

It's an annoyance, but difficult to avoid when our landline phone numbers are included on huge databases that are easily accessed. As a society, we've come to accept this kind of directory assistance for our landlines, even if it means an occasional unwanted call.

Our cell phones are a different story, though. One of the many advantages of a cell phone is the ability to maintain control over who has your number. This is important, because unlike our landlines, our cell phones go with us everywhere - in the car, at our business meetings, even at church.

As it stands now, our ability to control access to our cell numbers is fairly secure because wireless directory assistance is not yet available on a market-wide basis.

However, this could all change in the not-so-distant future. Wireless companies are currently in the process of compiling enormous databases of cell phone numbers in order to eventually offer wireless directory assistance.

Like millions of other cell phone users, I prefer to have a say about whether my number is made available to anyone who wants it. That's why I've been working on the issue of cell phone privacy in Congress for several years.

While industry leaders have attempted to calm consumers' anxieties about this, their arguments have been unconvincing.

In 2004, a leader of the cellular telecommunications industry testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. As a member of the committee, I took the opportunity to ask him about this issue.

Specifically, I wanted to know if the industry could guarantee that consumers' cell phone numbers would remain unlisted unless the consumer consented.

His reply was less than inspiring. He said, "I can't tell you that we won't change our minds. The market changes, business plans change, and we may well change our minds."

Unconvinced that proper privacy precautions were being taken, I decided to take action on behalf of millions of cell phone users who would simply like to have a say about the privacy of their numbers.

Like most initiatives in Congress, this has been a long process. But in recent days, the first ray of light has appeared at the end of the tunnel.

On March 8, the Energy and Commerce Committee considered a broad bill dealing with the privacy of phone records. I was able to successfully amend this legislation to protect the privacy of wireless phone numbers.

My amendment is very straightforward. It simply requires a customer's prior express authorization before a wireless company can add that customer's cell phone number to a directory assistance database.

If you don't specifically agree to be listed, you won't be.

Clearing the committee level is a significant step forward in this effort. The next step is a vote in the full House, which I hope to see sometime yet this spring.

This is a simple step, but an important one as we ponder an increasingly wireless future and the growing privacy concerns that go along with it.

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