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Liberty Alliance tackles phone privacy

Aims to develop spec to keep cell numbers from ring-tone makers and other wireless content providers.

The Liberty Alliance is working on technology to keep cell phone numbers from providers of wireless content such as ring tones, with the aim of protecting people's privacy.

The industry organization, formed to tackle standards for online authentication, on Monday launched a team to develop a specification that will enable mobile carriers to share information with third-party mobile content companies without releasing customers' phone numbers and addresses.

"The purpose of the group is to enable third-party content providers to integrate (services) with mobile carriers without knowing the identity of the users," said Atul Tulshibagwale, a Liberty Alliance member and CEO of Trustgenix, a provider of software for federated identity management.

Once finished, the interface specification for mobile messaging will work with both plain SMS, or Short Message Service, and with MMS, or Multimedia Messaging Service, which is typically used to send images and music. It will let companies deliver wireless content to a handset via the cellular network and use Liberty's Identity Web Services Framework, the organization said.

The push for privacy comes as concern rises over whether content providers are sharing users' information, such as e-mail addresses, with spammers for a fee.

"This business represents a large source of income for mobile operators and content providers alike," Timo Skytta, vice president of the Liberty Alliance and director of Web services at Nokia, said in a statement. "But it also represents a huge opportunity for privacy intrusion and increased spam, since users are exposing their telephone number directly to the content providers, who can then easily give or sell this information to others."

Also, in Europe, laws have recently been passed to prohibit service providers from giving personal information to third parties without the customer's consent.

"In Europe, babies virtually come out of the womb with cell phones. You are closely identified with your number," said John Pescatore, a security analyst with Gartner.

In conjunction with the Liberty Alliance announcement, Trustgenix and cellular carrier Vodafone demonstrated last week a proof-of-concept application that allows mobile customers to order content from providers while withholding their phone number or address.

Analysts noted that a mobile messaging specification could spur the creation of cell phone content, because developers would only need to write one version of the code for all cellular carriers. And, in turn, the specification could help ensure user privacy, leading to a faster adoption rate of the content, said Jonathan Penn, a Forrester Research security analyst.

The Liberty Alliance team includes Ericsson, Symlabs, Telefonica, Trustgenix and Vodafone. While a draft of a specification has yet to be made, Trustgenix expects it will have an application ready for mobile carriers for use sometime next year, Tulshibagwale said.