Tim Buckley Owen Trying to connect you...
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Saturday, 20th June 2009

By Tim Buckley Owen


With a business model largely unchanged throughout much of the twentieth century, the wonder is that it’s taken so long to shake up the telephone directory industry. Now not one but two initiatives have come along at once – and one of them has privacy campaigners up in arms. Despite being supplemented with a simple online service (http://www.thephonebook.bt.com), and with its monopoly on directory enquiries broken in 2002, there’s no question that the United Kingdom phone book has lost its role as a fundamental business tool. Globally, phone books are rigorously segregated by country or phone company, and generally only cover landlines. Not any more. An Israeli company called Picaphone (http://www.picaphone.com) has launched what it claims to be the world’s first international phone book (http://digbig.com/4yydw). To be sure, it doesn’t have quite everybody yet; in the best social networking style, it describes itself as a ‘worldwide contact search engine’ and is currently inviting people to add their details to the beta version. However, these details can include date of birth, which could be regarded as a risky addition since many businesses use date of birth to verify identity (http://digbig.com/4yyeb). And in any case, you have to wonder whether it really is the first such initiative; as Penny Crossland reported last February (http://www.vivavip.com/go/e16031), the launch of the .tel domain also offers the potential to create the world’s largest virtual directory. Mobiles – cell phones if you prefer – are another matter though. Largely invisible to phone books up to now, they’re starting to be revealed in the UK by a new company called Connectivity; its 118 800 service (http://www.118800.co.uk) claims to have ‘millions’ of mobile phone numbers on its books. Privacy is a key concern, the company says; instead of connecting an enquirer, it sends an SMS message to the person sought, so they can call the enquirer back – or not – as they choose (http://digbig.com/4yydx). But some privacy campaigners are deeply unhappy about the way the numbers have been sourced: by purchasing lists from brokers of people who’ve failed to opt out of having their information used for marketing purposes. However, a spokeswoman for Britain’s data protection regulator the Information Commissioner has said that Connectivity's use of direct marketing data is actually no different from other companies who use similar contact lists for cold calling. Connectivity has consulted the ICO, which confirmed in a statement published by the Register online newsletter (http://digbig.com/4yydy) that the service was ‘privacy friendly’. Either of these services could be of potential value to due diligence researchers or anyone else who needs to seek or verify personal details. But they both seem to be experiencing birth pangs at the moment.

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