Photo courtesy of Susanne Nilsson via the Creative Commons License

If you’re a traditional landline user who grew up prank calling friends, you’re probably familiar with the dialing code *67, which blocked the outgoing Caller ID information from being transmitted to the call recipient. But you probably didn’t know that, under one of the FCC’s privacy rules, your decision to block your Caller ID transmission also meant that the telephone companies were prohibited from disclosing that Caller ID information to just about anyone, including law enforcement.

Overtime, a rule that was put in place to protect legitimate privacy interests (for example, callers who sought to remain anonymous when seeking help with domestic abuse) has apparently been subject to increasing misuse. Threatening calls made with blocked Caller ID information that have targeted schools, religious organizations, and other entities has complicated law enforcement personnel efforts to access identifying information for the purposes of tracing and investigating those calls in a timely manner. Newly adopted FCC rules should fix that problem.

Last month, the FCC unanimously approved an Order that modifies its rules in a way that should help security and law enforcement personnel obtain quick access to blocked Caller ID information relating to threatening calls. The FCC has described the modifications in the Order as an exemption to the Caller ID privacy rules designed to promote public safety. This is also a shift from the FCC’s previous rule that generally prohibited telephone companies from revealing blocked Caller ID information.

So, what does this exemption entail? Telecommunications carriers will be required to disclose blocked Caller ID information only when law enforcement personnel request it while investigating a “threatening call.” Specifically, a “threatening call” is defined as “any call that conveys an emergency involving danger of death or serious physical injury to any person requiring disclosure without delay of information relating to the emergency.” This definition aligns with the standard set in the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA).

The new rules limit the sharing of blocked Caller ID information to law enforcement personnel and, as directed by law enforcement, others who are responsible for the safety and security of the threatened party. The FCC explained that, “we limited the disclosure of the blocked caller ID information to prevent abuse, and to protect the privacy interests of parties who may block their Caller ID for valid privacy interest, such as domestic violence victims.”

Prior to adopting the new rules, the FCC had granted limited, case-by-case waivers of the Caller ID privacy restrictions in extenuating circumstances where the requesting parties demonstrated that a waiver would serve the public interest.

While this Order and the new rules eliminate the need for such waivers, the FCC will continue to apply the same conditions that were attached to the waivers, as follows:

1) the calling party number (CPN) on incoming restricted calls may not be passed on to the line called;

2) any system used to record CPN must be operated in a secure way, limiting access to designated telecommunications and security personnel, as directed by law enforcement;

3) telecommunications and security personnel, as directed by law enforcement, may access restricted CPN data only when investigating calls involving danger of death or serious physical injury to any person requiring disclosure — without delay of information relating to the emergency — , and shall document that access as part of the investigative report;

4) carriers transmitting restricted CPN information must take reasonable measures to ensure the security of such communications;

5) CPN information must be destroyed in a secure manner after a reasonable retention period; and

6) any violation of these conditions must be reported promptly to the Commission.

Finally, the Order also adopted rule changes providing an exemption to “non-public” emergency services allowing those services to obtain blocked Caller ID information of persons calling for assistance.

As the FCC explained, an emergency caller to either a public (e.g., poison control) or non-public emergency assistance service (e.g., a private ambulance service) may not always remember or know how to disable Caller ID blocking (if it was previously enabled), and these callers would presumably want to be contacted or located using their phone number in order to receive further assistance. Consistent with past FCC waivers, entities providing non-public emergency services must still be licensed by a state or municipality to provide such services in order to qualify for the new exemption.