A public mobile phone directory for the UK will launch later this month, loaded with millions of private numbers bought from marketing departments.
From June 18, callers to 118800 will be asked for a first name, a surname and a town*. If a match is found, they will be connected to that person's mobile for £1.
Connectivity, the start-up firm behind the service, says it will never give out numbers or other personal details, and will ask the recipient's permission before connecting the call. It also promises in its FAQ not to sell or pass data to commercial organisations, and to monitor its directory for any suspicious usage patterns.
The firm is coy about how it built its list of "many millions" of mobile numbers. "Our mobile phone directory is made up from various sources," Connectivity wrote.
"Generally it comes from companies who collect mobile telephone numbers from customers in the course of doing business and have been given permission by the customers to share those numbers."
Simon Davies, director of Privacy International, briefly worked as a consultant on the venture, which is backed by the investment firm 3i. He left two years ago after it became clear the business plan was dependent on opt-out, rather than an opt-in consent. "There was just nothing I could contribute after that," he said.
"It's a fundamental problem that people may not have expected their number to be used for this purpose when they didn't tick a box on form for something else."
Davies said the firm's apparent unwillingness to discuss its data sources was also concerning. "It's wrong. There's no point in them dodging the issue," he said.
When it first announced the service in 2007, Connectivity said it would contact each person whose mobile phone details it purchased for permission to include them in the directory. Those plans were dropped, however, and the firm now says it will give each person the chance to opt out the first time they are contacted via the directory.
Children will not knowingly be included in the directory, but Connectivity said that where a parent is the phone owner it may still list the number. Its website offers an opt-out for parents which takes up to four weeks to take effect.
The 118800 website also allows those who want their number to be included in the directory to upload their details. ®
*Further personal details such as street name can be used to narrow down the search.
The service is currently in web-only trials. During highly unscientific Reg testing it was unable to find a match for anyone we know.