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Telco caught sending users' phone nos. to Web sites

Call up a Web page on your Sprint PCS cellphone and your number gets sent too

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US telco Sprint PCS was exposed this week for breaking the unwritten rules of Net privacy. According to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle, when users of Sprint's new wireless data service call up a Web site, their cellphone numbers are embedded in the http requests. This allows Web sites to work out the identities of Sprint visitors or at least track individuals' use of their sites. That's against the grain: surfers generally prefer to remain incognito unless, of course, they want to buy something. Sprint's defence is that users should be used to this kind of thing by now, thanks to cookies. But while cookies can be used to track individual Web site visitors, users can set their browsers to prevent their use. And cookies don't provide a phone number a sales rep can use to cold call the cellphone owner. Either that or the user can be spammed using SMS text messages. Sprint spokesman Tom Murphy also told the Chronicle that the inclusion of cellphone numbers in Web page requests is noted in the wireless data service's contract. Fair point, but who reads every word of the small print? And that goes double when said contract is a 6000-word document. However, for once the issue here may not be some clever marketing scheme on Sprint's part. The reason Sprint's wireless data phones send users' cellphone numbers is that the Phone.com browser built into them, which breaks sites' HTML pages down into something that can be viewed on a mobile phone screen, works by sending a unique ID code to the server. The phone number is simply the most convenient unique ID it can use. Possibly, but why not then scramble the number in such a way that the result remains unique but doesn't provide Web sites with a number their representatives can call? That's what Bell Atlantic, which also uses Phone.com's browser, claims to do. And AirTouch said it gets the browser to send out a random number and ignores phone numbers altogether. Clearly sending out phone numbers isn't necessary, so why continue to do so? Sprint didn't say whether it would adopt either the scrambling or random number approach, so we can only assume it wants Web sites to be able to track users of its service. And in any case, it doesn't seem enough of a problem that users will drop their Sprint PCS phones in favour of rival cellular data offerings. The guy who first identified the problem told the Chronicle he would continue to use the service, describing the privacy infringement as an "annoyance". ®

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