Dont Call Us

There’s a storm brewing over a new mobile phone directory service, 118 800, operated by a company called Connectivity, and due to launch next week. The service offers to put people in touch with someone they want to get hold of, but whose mobile number they don’t have. 118 800 is registered with PhonePayPlus, and has been told by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) that there is nothing with the service provided it complies with data legislation, which it claims to do.
Connectivity claims to have 15 million mobile numbers in its database. To get hold of someone via mobile, you enter their name and address details on the 118 800 website, and if they are in the directory, the company sends them a text message informing them that you (by name), are trying to get hold of them, and giving them your number. It’s then up to them whether or not they call you back.
In the future, the company plans to launch a version of the service where you can request to be put through to the person by phone. 118 800 will then call the person up on their mobile, ask them if they want to talk to you. And if so, put you through. Whichever way you use the service, if it’s successful, it costs you £1.
Brand Republic reports that the Daily Mail and the Independent have both carried reports today that focus on the privacy fears of those on the database. In the Daily Mail piece, Nigel Evans MP, the Conservative chairman of the All Party Group on ID Fraud, is quoted as saying:
“People feel that their mobile phone number is very private to them and should not be traded for profit. People will be infuriated if they find they are bombarded with calls from people they don't want or expect to hear from. It is a clear invasion of privacy.”
On the BBC website, meanwhile, Chris Watson, a lawyer at CMS Cameron McKenna is quoted thus:
“You are supposed to have people's consent if you are going to pass their number around and they need to know where it is going to go. When people tick a box, saying they have no objection to their number going to the company they are dealing with, they don't anticipate that it could then be sold. Not just possibly to trading partners, but to anybody under the sun.”
When I first heard about the fuss, I wondered what the problem was. After all, when you give a company permission to use your email address to send you communications, you routinely get one box to tick to give them permission to use it, and another if you want to give them permission to pass it on to other organisations. Which, of course, is how email marketing lists are compiled.  
It’s so long since I wrote anything on the Privacy in Electronic Communications Regulations that came into force in 2003, that I couldn’t honestly remember whether a similar situation exists for mobile numbers. According to the ICO’s helpline, it doesn’t. Typically, I was told, you give up your mobile number and your permission, and somewhere in the terms and conditions or the privacy policy, there will be something which tells you what the company might do with it, in terms of releasing, or not releasing it, to third parties.
So when Connectivity says on its website:
“Our mobile phone directory is made up from various sources. Generally it comes from companies who collect mobile telephone numbers from customers in the course of doing business and have been given permission by the customers to share those numbers”
it is no doubt telling the truth, but it’s not saying nearly enough about whether the people in the directory really knew their details were going to be passed on. If they did, then no one can have too much to complain about. If they didn’t, because they stupidly hit the 'Agree' button without reading all the tc & cs (as we all do), then Connectivity has gone out with a business model that is guaranteed to get it bad press, and to ignite the wrath of the very people whose details it is trading on.
On this point, it should offer as much clarification as it can, as quickly as it can. It should also, perhaps, try to look less like a company with something to hide. The corporate website address, just points at the consumer-facing 118 800 site, and for a company that aims to make a business out of putting people in touch with each other, it’s odd, to say the least, that neither website includes a contact phone number (118 800 doesn’t count).
There are a couple of other interesting points here. The lady on the ICO helpline said that some people calling today had asked if the TPS (Telephone Preference Service) had a role to play here, but the ICO’s office was advising that it had not, as 118 800 is not being used for marketing purposes. Which makes me wonder if there’s any reason why it might not be, if someone really wanted to target some very wealthy individuals, and deemed £1 to be a suitably low cost per acquisition.
The second point is the rate at which redundant mobile phone numbers are recycled, which means that the 118 800 directory could contain a mobile phone number which belonged to one person who gave permission for it to be shared, but is now owned by someone completely different. Whether Connectivity has screened the numbers for this is not clear. And without a phone number to call them on, finding out could take some time.
To this end, I just called 118 800 and asked for a phone number for a company called Connectivity. After an admirably brief pause, the chap on the line told me this was the number for Connectivity, but that he couldn't put me through to a press office to get some answers to my questions. Instead, he took my phone number and said he would try to get someone to call me back. Where have I heard that one before?
What happened next made me think again. Firstly, the phone rang within a minute, with a number for Connectivity’s head office. When I rang it, I was put through to a spokeswoman, Jo Smith, who listened patiently to my questions, and did her best to answer them.
On the issue of number recycling, this could not arise, she said, as the number is tied to the owner’s address. Fair enough. On the issue of whether the people whose numbers are on the directory ticked a box explicitly stating that the number would be passed on to third parties, or whether they just ticked a box giving permission for it to be used, with the details buried in the tc & cs, she thought it 99% certain it would be the latter, but told me:
“We can tell any person where we got their number from, so they can go back to the company concerned if they thought their data was not going to be passed on.”
When I asked for her job title, instead of the expected ‘Press Officer’, she told me she was the company’s Financial Controller. The company had been gearing up for an official launch on 18 June, she explained, but because a journalist had come across the website and broken the story this morning, the company was trying to cope with 200 calls a minute from worried consumers.
So perhaps they’re not so much unscrupulous, as unprepared. Even so, if those 15 million numbers do belong to people who never realised they were going to be sold on in this way, Connectivity should perhaps prepare for a few more days like today. If so, they should look for a new Financial Controller, because their current one would make a great Press Officer.  

David Murphy