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Source: Internet World News

Posted on March 8, 2000

      Sprint PCS is the latest company to enter the Internet's "Consumer Privacy Hall of Shame," joining such illustrious past winners as DoubleClick (for stealthy user tracking) and Intel (for embedding unique IDs in each Pentium III).

      Sprint, according to Wednesday's San Francisco Chronicle, took a shortcut when it set up its browse-via-Web-enabled-cell-phone service that appends the phone number of the cell phone being used to every page request. The company gets bonus points for its blase response, which was an attempt to downplay the problem with a statement that lots of people give away data on the Web all the time, so what's the big deal? Spokesman Tom Murphy also pointed out that the company stated clearly (on page 7 of the 13-page service agreement) that it was doing this, so consumers were forewarned.

      The shortcut Sprint took is really a byproduct of how cell phones using the Phone.com microbrowser get around the problem that few Web pages are displayable on the tiny screens of tiny phones. Phone.com's workaround requires that a unique identifier be appended to each HTTP request so the gateway transforming a page into a more phone-friendly form can separate those requests from others coming from more robust browsers. Sprint engineers realized that all phones already have a unique identifier -- the phone number itself -- so they didn't have to create a new one.

      Unfortunately, this is a truly terrible idea. Not only does appending the cell phone number break the basic expectation of anonymity most users have when browsing -- in an even more egregious fashion than DoubleClick's now-on-hold plan to link offline marketing databases and online usage information -- it lets marketers call or send short text messages directly to consumers using a network that makes the receiver pay for the call. Sprint should assign another unique ID, of course, and should do so in a double-blind system in which even Sprint can't trace the second ID back to a specific individual.

      But more important, Sprint, Phone.com, and every other player in the emerging device field should relentlessly pursue an education program that encourages Web designers, toolmakers, and businesses to build sites according to the W3C's XHTML specification. Plus these players should demand adoption of the media-dependent style sheet portion of the Cascading Style Sheet 2.0 recommendation. Widespread adoption of these two standards will enable these sites to serve any kind of device without having to use kludges like the Phone.com ID solution.

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