Caller-ID: Screening Out the Possibilities of Privacy in Communication

What’s in the Box?”

Conceptualizing new media in terms of intended versus implied use often times falls back upon a much larger question: What came before?  Caller ID (or CID) and the many variants it has spawned, including calling line identification, calling number identification, incorporates a previous feature of technology (the telephone) while wrestling with larger ethical and value implications such as privacy, rights, and equality. The rhetoric and scholarly discourse of caller-id depicts not only the cultural and social implications of intrusions but also delineates the distinction between conceptions of public and private approaches to “appropriate” communication.  This essay will not only provide a historical approach to the medium of caller-id, but will also discuss the ways in which our society has dealt with issues of privacy and the unwanted calls that are placed squarely in our domestic lives…the home.  I will also examine the ways in which the technology of caller-id was and can be used to bypass the constraints of the medium itself.  Our world is primarily a product of instant gratification when it comes to the advances of technology (i.e. the Internet is just one ‘click’ away, texting someone across the world, streaming videos in real-time on the computer).  Our levels of patience have decreased with the implementation of technologies that identify and prepare one for choosing to accept a call, conversation, argument, or whether we decide to use the technology to “screen” ourselves away from the intrusion by selectively deciding and placing values not only on whom we talk to, but the just how important we feel our time is.

Early Caller ID example from the 1970s

Caller-id has been widely used as a communication tool since 1995; however, the technology of caller-id has been around since the late 1960s.   Originating in Greece in 1968, Theodore George Paraskevakos was the person responsible for developing the method of transmitting a caller’s number to a centralized receiver’s device.  However, it was not until 1976 that Japanese inventor, Kazuo Hashimoto, was the first to develop a prototype of a caller-id device that would be responsible for recording the information on the caller (PhoneTel Patent Services). 

Theodore George Paraskevakos


The model that most people are familiar with developed during the mid-1990s with the use of a small box attached to the phone lines that would display one of two types of messages depending on what type of caller-id devices you owned: 1) Single Data Message Format (SDMF) – which would display only the number, date, and time that the call was placed or 2) Multiple Data Message Format (MDMF) that along with the information presented through SDMF would also provide the name of the person who was on record for paying the bill (not necessarily the person who was actually making the phone call). 

While the service provided users with the means of identifying calls, there was an inherent notion of hierarchy built into the technology.  The service initially was fee-based, whereby the user had to purchase a device (ranging from $30-60) (Philadelphia Inquirer, 1994, p.2) and then pay an additional monthly rate ($6-8) to use the service in accordance with your phone provider.  Those choosing to upgrade and use the services had to have the means to actually be able to afford it.  The price of the unit, as well as its ancillary use with regards to standard telephone use is not the main focus of my paper.  I am more concerned with the larger implications on how both social and cultural values of privacy became challenged with the use and widespread dissemination of the technology.

Privacy and Sociability in Post-CID Communication: Through the Electronic Peephole

Early accounts of the widespread use of caller-id fell into the technological deterministic category.  In a January 8, 1994 newspaper article from The Ottawa Citizen, the possibility of a device that would be able to record and transmit both the name and number of the caller was viewed as inherently dangerous.  The story’s tone focused on the concerns felt by embracing such a technology by targeting two groups of people: abusive spouses and criminals to trace their victims.  The story elicited a quasi moral panic by suggesting that by displaying the name and number of an abused person or a potential victim, the receiver-as-criminal would be able to locate that particular individual simply by matching up name and phone number in the phone book/directory to find their home address.  The undercurrent of fear and uncertainty was prevalent in many of these early articles because it was the responsibility of the caller to block their phone number and name from showing up on the receiver’s CID device.  The default settings indicate a free-flow of information, however, it is the responsibility of the individual to enter a series of numbers (i.e. *67) to block their information from coming out.  Those who are critical of embracing the widespread use of the device point to this as an invasion of their privacy.

The Philadelphia Inquirer in a January 15, 1994 article described caller-id as an electronic peephole having the responsibility to not only see who is calling before you answer, but being able to block information from the incoming calls.  State representative, David R. Wright, issued his support for this concept of caller-id by saying: “I think people ought to have a peephole on their door if they want it…and if you choose to do so, you ought to have a right to know who’s calling you before you pick up the telephone” (Philadelphia Inquirer, p.1). 

Typing in the additional numbers to ensure privacy though is met with its own share of criticism. 

James Katz’s book, Connections: Social and Cultural Studies of the Telephone in American Life (1999) focused on the disjunction between an individual’s right to privacy and the ability of technology to advance our perception of communication (we can have forethought and knowledge beforehand who’s calling…harkening back to the mystique and supernatural qualities of the telephone and telegraph over 100 years ago…see Czitrom, Boddy, & Fischer).  What we have here is the ability to predict intrusions and invasions that we would otherwise not be able to when the telephone entered into one’s domestic home.  Katz (p.150) provides four criteria surrounding privacy invasion: 1) Intruding, 2) Information gathering, 3) Interfering, and 4) Violating accepted standards.  Katz discussed that privacy interests among various parties are not equal and that even with a widespread deployment of caller-id, these decisions about privacy are not created in a vacuum since the relationship between high social goals and conflicting privacy interests, the concept of privacy rights “are relative, not absolute” (Katz, 1999, p. 152).

The history of the telephone has often been a juggling act between interaction and unwanted intrusions.  Parallels can be drawn to the issue of privacy and invasion with the caller-id.  Historically, the aspect of direct dialing had the mysterious aura of a stranger within one’s home.  Katz notes that class distinctions often added to the level of removal from actually interacting with the “caller”.  “Those with secretaries or servants did have a buffer between themselves and callers, but even with these adjuncts, people were accustomed to the fact that when the phone rang there was no way to be certain who was calling” (Katz, p. 152).  Privacy and recognition was often met with standards of etiquette.  A 1918 article in American Magazine discussed the relationship between the telephone call and a potentially unwanted intrusion: “If you went personally to see a man, or to call on a woman, you would expect to send in your name, just because you make your call over the telephone there is no reason why you should demand to be ushered into a person’s presence without that formality” (Katz, p. 153).   The caller-id however reduces the level anonymity that the caller can embody (or conceal with traditional direct dialing).

Caller-id complicates the standard level of reciprocity of sender and receiver, which is contingent upon a few conditions: 1) that the person has/has not blocked an incoming call, 2) the idea of screening an unwanted or unknown number, and 3) that the recipient of the call already has an unbalanced relationship (ala knowing the caller’s name) prior to the call actually connecting.  The imbalanced relationship between sender/receiver complicates the idea pertaining to caller entitlement to either know who’s calling at what time, or the reverse, wanting to retain some autonomy without being “read” like an open-book.  Katz’s analysis of entitlement is unfounded:  “Callers should have the same rights as everyone else, not more rights, and not special rights.  It is mystifying why a belief has developed that callers are somehow entitled to more and special privacy than others who are not, and never should have been, entitled to automatic anonymity when they impact someone else, neither in context of a telephone call nor in analogous communicative contexts” (p. 161).

Katz recommended that instead of boycotting against caller-id that humans would be able to sidestep or neutralize the function of caller-id through the following ways: using a pay phone, use of a mobile/cellular phone, calling from an unexpected location, or having two separate phone lines one used explicitly for dialing out.  Today though, these specific measures seem not only antiquated, but counter-productive considering 1) the rapid nature with which this technology has spread across cell phones, and 2) historically the telephone was not a place for privacy with party lines and people lurking.  As I will mention in my conclusion, the use and standardization of caller-id software on our modern cell phones is used more as a means of convenience than a tool used to strip away elements of privacy.

One Missed Call

Over the past fifteen years, caller-id technology has continued shaping the way we consider telephonic communication.  Caller-id units have become antiquated as more and more people have turned towards cell phones as their primary means of communication.  We take for granted the idea that we can see on the screen who is calling or who has called. The concept of time as a precious and valuable commodity is not something that has simply arisen in the wake of caller-id; it has merely been remediated into a novel, but ultimately familiar form: penetrating the private sphere at any given moment.  Historically one can see such parallels as salesmen leaving their “calling cards” while the homeowner was away, secretaries intercepting calls that the boss does not want to personally answer.  Why then should it be problematic for someone to screen a call if one does not recognize the number?  Katz optimistically asserts the appeal of caller-id: “Caller-id promises to help them receive more of the calls they want, speak to the people they want who are proposing to penetrate their privacy, avoid disruption from unwanted callers, get business done faster with organizations, and effectuate redress against abusive telephonic intruders” (p. 168).


One thought on “Caller-ID: Screening Out the Possibilities of Privacy in Communication

  1. I noticed that my references did not get attached with the actual paper.

    Johnson, K. (1994, January 25). Banishing the busy signal; the telephone revolution refuses to wait for the beep. The New York Times, pp. 1-3.

    Katz, J. E. (1999). Connections: Social and cultural studies of the telephone in American life. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

    PhoneTel (2010). Dr. Kazuo Hashimoto’s legacy. PhoneTel Patent Services Inc. Retrieved from

    Rozansky, M. L. (1994, January 15). Who’s calling, please? Soon, you’ll just know. Caller id, a system that reveals the sources, is ready to go. The Philadelphia Inquirer, pp. 1-3.

    Southam News. (1994, January 8). Name display proposal rings up safety, privacy concerns. The Ottawa Citizen, pp. 1-2.

    Wald, M. L. (1994, October 13). Federal caller-id rule sparks privacy debate. The New York Times, pp. 1-4.

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