The Cell Sell: There Will Be Blood

Efforts to create a cell phone directory hits snags in Olympia.

Bellevue-based Intelius is something of a reporter's dream. They provide information on people's past addresses and family members for free, and another $50 or so will get you an entire background check (see Nina Shapiro's April 11, 2007, profile of the company). But when Intelius began offering a cell phone number search for the low, low price of about $15 a few months ago, Verizon was pissed, releasing a statement on Jan. 29 which read, "Stop it. This is a violation of Americans' privacy. People expect their cell phone numbers to remain private." An Intelius spokesperson says that their database is built by collecting information from public records, such as property information, and purchasing telemarketing and sales lists, as well as caller ID database information, from a handful of cell providers (though most don't sell such info). In 2006, Intelius' content and support costs hit $6.75 million, according to company records. So if your name shows up with your cell number in a friend's caller ID box, it could be available on Intelius. The difference is that a solicitation company probably isn't going to take the time to buy numbers off your buddy one at a time. Through Intelius, it would be possible to look up the name Smith in Washington and purchase the numbers in bulk. Verizon isn't alone in its reservations about Intelius' new service. State Attorney General Rob McKenna is backing legislation that would require anyone providing cell numbers in a directory to get written permission from the subscriber. If passed as written, violators would be subject to a $50,000 fine per violation. Intelius sent a representative to Olympia to argue against the measure during a Jan. 29 committee hearing., another area online directory, also opposes the legislation, though Chief Privacy Officer Reese Solberg says that his company made a decision to keep cell numbers off their site. WhitePages' concern, he says, is that numbers on the site listed as landlines may have been transferred to cell phones, causing them to inadvertently be in violation of the proposed legislation. "We're concerned maybe the legislation is going too far in dictating how this needs to work," adds Solberg The bill, SB 6374, isn't currently scheduled for additional action, but within two days of the aforementioned hearing, Intelius had pulled the service from its site. The company said in a statement that the controversial product was no longer offered "due to lack of demand." On Jan. 10, Intelius filed paperwork with the Securities and Exchange Commission for a $143.75 million public stock offering. Taking the company public means keeping the brand an attractive option for potential investors. And apparently, selling off cell numbers doesn't meet that objective.

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