While phone companies and civil libertarians square off over the virtues of Caller ID, Corporate America is stockpiling information about its customers by using a similar number-identification technology.
The corporate version of Caller ID, known as Automatic Number Identification, is sold by the long-distance telephone companies to a range of commercial customers. Like Caller ID, ANI passes along the numbers -- listed and unlisted -- of incoming calls to commercial customers without the consent or knowledge of callers. Unlike Caller ID, however, ANI can be teamed with other information technologies for dazzling results.
Some ANI-based systems, for example, act as sophisticated switchboards, automatically matching incoming callers to their electronic customer files, then routing the call -- along with the customer file -- to the appropriate company representative. That way company representatives know who is on the line and
what the customer file looks like before answering.
The process is undetectable to customers, who are identified, sorted and routed in just seconds.
Caller ID, a byproduct of ANI, is marketed and sold exclusively forresidential use.
Caller ID lets consumers see the numbers of incoming calls, which are displayed on a special device attached to the phone.
ANI is aimed at companies that communicate with their customers by phone.
ANI systems typically are used in conjunction with toll-free "800" lines. The systems automatically record the numbers of incoming calls for later use.
According to the long-distance companies that sell ANI services, ANI-based systems are the first line of defense in the marketing war, a strategic asset that can help make or break a company's reputation for quality and responsiveness.
"It's a very productive way of providing answering attendance," observed Richard B. Goulet, director of "800" services for US Sprint.
ANI-based systems typically are used to improve customer serviceand to cut down on the time it takes to handle incoming calls.
At American Express Corp., for example, callers to the toll-free customer-service line are immediately identified as holders of green, gold or platinum cards and routed to the appropriate service department.
Similarly, Toyota's Lexus car dealers use a toll-free line to provide emergency assistance to Lexus owners who get stranded on the road.
Callers need only punch in a personal identification code to gain access to Lexus' system. The system automatically finds the caller's file and shoots it to the computer screen of Lexus' emergency personnel. Those files contain everything Lexus needs to know to help out stranded motorists, including car model and color, warranty data and the owner's preferred salutation.
"We know everything about you by looking at that file," said Ron Zarriello, the Lexus service manager for Len Stoler Lexus in Owings Mills.
Consumer advocates agree that ANI-based systems can lead to better service for customers, but some fear that some companies might be taking the technology too far. The risk, they say, is that the privacy of consumers will be trampled.
"Caller ID and ANI can be used to enhance our lives, but the technology can also be used to undermine" the privacy of citizens, said Jan Lori Goldman of the American Civil Liberties Union. "Unless blocking is offered, these services shouldn't be offered."
Mark Rotenberg of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group, thinks ANI-type systems violate a basic tenet of consumer rights the right to choose to divulge personal information.
Mr. Rotenberg said he takes exception to any ANI service, whether in the form of a toll-free line or a residential Caller ID service.
"The act of revealing a phone number should be an affirmative action," said Mr. Rotenberg, not a covert result of technology.
"We think people have a fundamental right to give out information as they so choose," he said.
"That right should not be taken away from them because of the technology," Mr. Rotenberg said.
"The right to anonymity, for us to ignore as an issue, is ludicrous,"agreed D. Michael Tyler of American Telephone & Telegraph Co. "There are certain, legitimate privacy concerns, and we can't say these aren't important."
The challenge for companies, he said, is to find a way to provide exceptional customer service without violating consumers' basic rights -- or sensibilities.
There have been a few flubs along the way.
American Express Corp., for example, missed the mark a few years ago when it arranged its ANI-based system so that customer-service representatives could answer the phone with a personalized greeting. The idea, apparently, was to speed call handling and make customers feel special.
The plan backfired: Instead of feeling special, callers got the feeling that Big Brother was watching.
Service representatives wound up spending so much time explaining how they knew callers' names, instead of attending to their needs, that the practice was soon abandoned, said Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of the Privacy Journal.
"Unfortunately, the experience has been that companies generally install the technology first and think of privacy considerations later when customers complain," according to Mr. Smith, whose Providence, R.I.-based publication covers privacy issues.
A plan by Fidelity Investments, a mutual-fund company based in New York, similarly fell flat. Fidelity offered a toll-free number for people to call to keep tabs on their investments. To gain access to personal information, callers had to punch in their Social Security number.
The only problem was that learning someone else's Social Security number isn't that difficult. So it didn't take long for some people to figure out how to gain access to the account information of some of Fidelity's more than 4 million accounts, including that of Fidelity's chairman.
Following a report in the Wall Street Journal that pointed out the ease of gaining access to another investor's portfolio, Fidelity Investments changed the system.
Eric Kobren, editor of Fidelity Insights newsletter, said customers now must punch in their Social Security and account numbers to use the system.
Eventually, every customer will be assigned a personal identification number, he said.
Fidelity "didn't think it through," Mr. Kobren said.
Snafus like those are likely to crop up as companies continue to test the technological waters, said Sam Simon, a telecommunications consultant in Washington.
"The problem is that the technology is so good that a lot of companies just do it and deal with the privacy issue as an afterthought," he said.
Other ANI enhancements in the works could prove to be similarly sticky.
One ANI technology fresh off the drawing board, for example, can surreptitiously record the numbers of callers who get put on hold.
The idea is to give companies a way to record and retrieve the numbers of would-be customers who get put on hold and hang up before company representatives can get to them, said Art Schoeller, a product manager for AT&T.;
But translating that idea into a workable, acceptable customer-service tool is another matter, Mr. Schoeller said. The challenge, he said, is to implement the more sophisticated ANI technologies without alienating customers.
"It's a classic case of technology transfer from the minds of lab people, to marketing, to sales, to customers, to people who implement," he said. "There's a long learning curve there."
But handled properly, ANI technologies do work and work well, Mr. Schoeller said.
Days Inn of America, for example, uses an ANI system to help handle the more than 10 million calls its motels receive each year. Calls are routed over an ANI-based system, which can seamlessly send calls back and forth between sites as needed. As a result, calls are being answered 20 percent faster, phone costs have dropped, and callers are being put on hold less.
Doug Patterson, vice president of reservations for Days Inn, said the chain plans to match ANI eventually with a data base containing information about guests' preferences for certain types of rooms, billing records and other information.
Bausch & Lomb, a large eye-care company, is using an ANI-based system that can retrieve the numbers of calls -- even if the caller hangs up.
AT&T;'s Mr. Schoeller said Bausch & Lomb complained that it was losing calls to its Rochester, N.Y., facility that processes contact-lens orders. Callers put on hold apparently were hanging up.
The solution was a call-management system that records numbers and messages after hours. That and an ANI system that records callers' telephone numbers -- even if they hang up -- has meant that fewer than 1 percent of calls are being lost.
Mr. Schoeller said another eye-care company wants to install a similar system with one caveat: The owner wants the system to categorize callers before operators answer.
Operators would know up front if a big account -- or a deadbeat -- was waiting on the line, Mr. Schoeller explained.
Some privacy experts aren't so sure consumers are ready for that.
"The way we use the phone today is, until we willingly identify ourselves, you don't know who's calling," observed the ACLU's Ms. Goldman. "For good or for bad, the Caller ID technologies reverse that social relationship."
Not only that, some people might not like the idea of being pigeon-holed by an ANI technology "before you've even had a chance to say 'hello,' " said Mr. Rotenberg of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility.
"When you walk into a store, you're not going to necessarily disclose your driver's license or your income, and you don't expect to be treated differently if you're making $20,000 or $40,000," he said. "But all that changes in the ANI environment."
That is because ANI-type technologies view customers "as a particular type based on a marketing opportunity," Mr. Rotenberg said.
"From a commercial standpoint, it's perfectly sensible," he said. "But from a customer's point of view, that should have people a little unsettled."
ANI has not generated the same controversy as its offspring, Caller ID. Since it was introduced last year, civil libertarians have condemned Caller ID for a litany of alleged privacy abuses.
The "Baby Bells" that market Caller ID, including Bell Atlantic Corp., have defended the service as a way to cut down on harassing or obscene phone calls.
Nobody is suggesting the abolition of ANI-type services, but many consumer advocates say they would like to hear more public discussion of ANI.
Toward that end, the ACLU is pushing for legislation that would require ANI users to provide blocking.
Such a service would give consumers the option of preventing their numbers from being detected by ANI-based systems, much like some callers now have the option of blocking Caller ID.
Legislation requiring phone companies to offer blocking for ANI-type services, including Caller ID, was introduced in Congress last year. The measure, which was defeated, has been reintroduced this year.
A number of states, including Maryland, require local phone companies to offer blocking. Most have resisted, saying blocking undercuts the value of the Caller ID service to subscribers.
A similar argument could be made for commercial ANI services. If callers were able to prevent their numbers from being detected by ANI-based systems, the value of such systems could be undercut.
AT&T;'s Mr. Schoeller points out that customer demand, to a large extent, has influenced the trend toward using ANI-based systems. Indeed, ANI in its purest form is designed to speed call-handling and make customer-service departments more responsive to callers.
According to Mr. Schoeller, demand for better customer service is likely to mean more, not less, use of automation and communication technologies in the future, so customers should be prepared to cooperate.
"People have agreed to have this relationship with businesses, and a part of that relationship involves exchanging this type of information," he said.