The mobile world is ablaze over a discovery by Android developer Trevor Eckhart. He found a piece of software secretly installed on his smartphone called Carrier IQ that watches just about everything. Carriers are now stumbling to avoid a potential privacy catastrophe across every major mobile platform.
In a nutshell, Carrier IQ is a piece of third party software that is virtually undetectable and runs automatically in the background analyzing every keystroke, email, text, photo, call, location, and URL visited on your smartphone. Eckhart discovered it on an HTC smartphone running Android, but it appears iPhones (although it's not nearly as serious as on Android and can be turned off) are not devoid of Carrier IQ either. Apple says it stopped using Carrier IQ since iOS 5 and will remove all traces of it in a future update.
Naturally, Eckhart published everything in a YouTube video, but not before Carrier IQ went after him. Eckhart enlisted the help of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Carrier IQ's been apologetic since.
So what is really going on here? Who is responsible for installing Carrier IQ and why haven't consumers been made aware of the hidden "spyware" that's watching us like Big Brother?
Your Info Isn't Being Sold to Third Parties
First things first. What is Carrier IQ used for? To the software maker's defense:
Our software is designed to help mobile network providers diagnose critical issues that lead to problems such as dropped calls and battery drain.
Carrier IQ's plea is that contrary to what's being reported, the software it creates does not record keystrokes, does not provide tracking tools, doesn't inspect emails and texts, doesn't provide real-time data to customers and it doesn't sell any data it does collect to third parties.
That may be true, but it's also true that Carrier IQ software, once handed off to carriers can be modified to their heart's content. That's where it gets iffy. If carriers can modify Carrier IQ software, then technically, it's possible that there are smartphones out their with the software that are keeping tabs on your every move.
Carrier IQ provides information that allows Sprint, and other carriers that use it, to analyze our network performance and identify where we should be improving service. We also use the data to understand device performance so we can figure out when issues are occurring. We collect enough information to understand the customer experience with devices on our network and how to address any connection problems, but we do not and cannot look at the contents of messages, photos, videos, etc., using this tool. The information collected is not sold and we don't provide a direct feed of this data to anyone outside of Sprint.
As it would appear, although Carrier IQ can be a cause of major concern, at least Sprint says it doesn't actually use or sell any of your personal info, if you would are inclined to believe them.
However, AT&T is a little more vague:
Mark Siegel, executive director of media relations at AT&T, however, declined to say whether Carrier IQ is present in all AT&T handsets, what notice users have of its presence and whether users have the ability to turn off the software if they choose.
In an emailed statement, Siegel said that AT&T's use of Carrier IQ software is in line with the company's privacy policies. "We're really not going to offer more detail than what's in the statement," he said.
So does that mean there's a good chance that AT&T's mining our data for evil motives? It's possible. It sure is possible.
Deny, Deny, Deny
AT&T and T-Mobile have yet to issue a response on whether or not it authorizes Carrier IQ software on cellphones they sell and if so, to what degree it's logging info.
Daring Fireball's tech pundit John Gruber isn't letting anybody off the hook just yet, suggesting that even though RIM openly states it "doesn't pre-install the Carrier IQ app on BlackBerry smartphones or authorize its carrier partners to install the Carrier IQ app before sales or distribution" that doesn't necessarily mean that the individual carriers aren't installing it on their own terms.
If you can't deny the accusations, then the only way is to blame the carriers and that's exactly what HTC is doing:
"Carrier IQ is required on devices by a number of U.S carriers so if consumers or media have any questions about the practices relating to, or data collected by, Carrier IQ we'd advise them to contact their carrier.
It is important to note that HTC is not a customer or partner of Carrier IQ and does not receive data from the application, the company, or carriers that partner with Carrier IQ. HTC is investigating the option to allow consumers to opt-out of data collection by the Carrier IQ application."
Well isn't that just nice to know. Because HTC makes phones for every single carrier in the U.S.
Government Stepping In
At the the moment, there's really nothing anybody can do to remove Carrier IQ from afflicted devices, but if you're freaking out over things, you can always download Eckhart's Carrier IQ detection app and give your Android device a scan. Your Android device will have to be rooted, though.
Carrier IQ's gotten so big and ugly that Minnesota's Sen. Al Franken is demanding an investigation into Carrier IQ's software.
If we consumers aren't getting it right on what goes into running a huge wireless network up, then it's the job of the carriers and cellphone makers to educate us on why it even records any private info in the first place.
In the coming days, everything will hopefully be cleared up a bit, but as of now, it remains a huge mess and headache for all, and no matter what the outcome is, it's going to be ugly, for sure.