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.