Cell phone records hubbub good for business

Cellulartrace.com said it's benefitting from all the publicity around the sale of cell phone records.
Cellulartrace.com said it's benefitting from all the publicity around the sale of cell phone records.

All this discussion about private cell phone records being sold to anyone with a checkbook is finally making a difference. At least one company that sells the records says the publicity has been great for business.

"As a result of the recent newscasts on cellular research, we have been completely inundated with orders," a message on CellularTrace.com read Thursday. "We are getting caught up as quickly as possible, but those placing new orders should expect delays.

The site got prominent mention in Congress on Wednesday, as the House Energy and Commerce Committee debated ways to deal with the problem of cell phone record sales. Witness Rob Douglas, CEO of PrivacyToday.com, showed the site and several others still doing business, and in fact taking advantage of the current publicity.

"These are very brazen people," Douglas said.

A series of news reports in recent months have focused attention on the issue. But sale of the records has been known to the industry and to Congress since at least 1998, when the first hearings on data theft through pretexting — calling customer service agents under a false pretext — were held. 

Still, there were fresh statements of outrage at the hearing.

"These are very personal and private records of who we call, when we call and how long we spend on the telephone call," said committee chairman Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas. "This is an invasion into our personal privacy and, if I have anything to do with it, will not be allowed to continue for very much longer."

But despite the flurry of recent news coverage and congressional activity — there will be a similar hearing on the Senate side next week — it seems the cell phone record sale industry is still thriving. Companies like DataTraceUsa.com are still advertising on search engines, promising to provide "All calls from most recent bill w/dates, times and durations."

Proposed new legislation that would make the theft or sale of cell phone records to third parties illegal met with little disagreement at the hearing, even from industry spokesmen. But several witnesses raised the question whether restricting phone records was enough.

"If we go after cell phones today, tomorrow it will be cable bills and utility bills they're selling," Douglas said. He favors a law that would make it illegal to call any firm under a false pretext to obtain someone else's personal information.

Barton wondered aloud if, in a world where unlimited calling plans proliferate, there's a need for detailed call records at all. There were no objections from United States Telecom Association spokesman Ed Merlis or Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association spokesman Steve Largent.

Largent said the cellular industry is reacting aggressively to stem the problem, and already many firms have stopped faxing or e-mailing customer records — they are only sent by snail mail now. (Largent's appearance the week before the Super Bowl also drew much attention and the football hall-of-famer endured many Seattle Seahawk jokes from his former colleagues in the House.)

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the cell phone records issue is part of a much more complex problem legislators need to tackle — the issue of personal privacy in an age where corporations are stuck in the bad habit of collecting as much data as possible, and storing it forever.

"We ask that you consider legislation limiting the collection of personal information," he said. "Consumers are at risk in this ... environment."