A controversial directory service that makes it possible for people to track down others by mobile phone has been temporarily suspended. The 118 800 mobile phone directory, which launched in the UK less than a month ago, has been out of commission since early on Friday and is yet to be back up and running.
On Friday, we reported that the website associated with the 118 800 service was temporarily unavailable while, late on Friday, the organisation issued a press statement that it had officially suspended both its website and its mobile phone directory service.
The statement reassures consumers that "all requests to be made 'ex directory' that have been sent to the service, via the website or text message, are being dealt with and these numbers will made ex- directory. There will be no need to resend these requests to 118 800."
The statement goes on to say that 118 800 will begin taking further ex-directory requests as soon as the service is resumed.
Last week, many office workers received emails urging them to opt out of the service, which indirectly connects marketers and sales people to people they're keen to pitch to. To do so, consumers had to visit the www.118800.co.uk website and enter their mobile phone number, prefixing it with an 'E' to indicate that they wished it to be ex-directory.
Confirmation that this had been done was supposed to arrive by text message but with the site and now the phone number to contact Connectivity currently out of commission, thousands of consumers are still waiting to be told whether they've successfully removed themselves from the database.
The organisation behind 118 800, Connectivity, was told by the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) that it must ensure such an opt-out was as easy as possible for consumers to effect.
While 118 800 makes it clear that it doesn't give out mobile phone numbers, simply puts people in touch, many consumers have been alarmed at finding that their private mobile phone numbers have been collected and added to a database without them knowing it was happening.
The 118 800 mobile phone directory advertises itself as a national database of numbers that enables people to get back in touch with each other. However, it's actually a commercial organisation that charges £1 every time someone uses its service.
Both Ofcom and the ICO say they are keeping an eye on the service. Ofcom acknowledged that it had received a high volume of calls regarding the service but that the service was out of its jurisdiction.
Instead, anyone with a complaint against the organisation is urged to lodge it with Phone Pay Plus, which regulates premium rate phone services.
An Ofcom spokeswoman told PC Advisor that "we don't really have a role in this" even though it's a telecoms issue. Rules regarding privacy and data protection, meanwhile, are governed by the ICO.
In response to our story, a representative from 118 800, Joe, commented that: "We'll never actually give out anyone's personal details. When you search on 118800.co.uk, we'll send an SMS message to the person you'ee looking for, giving them your contacts details and it is then up to you if you wish to call them back or not.
"The service aims to connect people that know each other's name and address. We don't give out numbers to anyone, especially sales organisations.
"Our service on 118 800 and 118800.co.uk was being tested in June. There are now developments we want to make to improve the service for our customers. But due to the high levels of enquiries we are getting, we are simply not able to complete the technical work required whilst the service is live."
Anyone dialling 118800 while the service is temporarily suspended will still be charged for the call, states the website's home page.
The ICO says "We will continue to be in contact with Connectivity to establish precisely how it is complying with the Data Protection Act (DPA) and Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR) in relation to the numbers included in the directory.
"We made it absolutely clear to Connectivity that it should not use numbers where there is any doubt about whether the consumer is happy for their information to be used. We are asking Connectivity precisely how they have met this obligation."
"We will be monitoring Connectivity and will consider using our regulatory powers if the service fails to meet its obligations under the DPA and PECR. If an individual is concerned about how their personal information is treated by any organisation, including Connectivity, they can complain to the ICO and we will look into it."
Prior to the service launching in mid-June, the 118 800 service owners verified their data protection and compliance obligations with the ICO. The ICO says it provided advice on compliance with the Data Protection Act (DPA) and Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR).
We understand that the service is privacy-friendly in that it will only connect people when the recipient agrees to take the call and even then it will do so without divulging their number.
"We made it absolutely clear to Connectivity that they should not use numbers where there was any doubt about whether the consumer was happy for their information to be used in this way.
"Connectivity is aware that the law requires them to remove any numbers relating to consumers who request that their information is removed from the directory service. Opting out of the service should be made as easy as possible for anyone who does not want their details to be used for the directory service."