November 30, 2011
Your Phone Is Spying On You But You Weren't Supposed To Notice
There are a number of reports in the technology press about software provided Carrier IQ to phone vendors that track what users are doing. Phone companies and manufacturers have come under fire for tracking user locations in the name of better geo-location services, at least without notice and the ability to opt out (or in, depending on one’s moral view of tracking). Malls have come under fire for using visitors’ cell phone signals to track customers’ traffic patterns. Some have backed off on the practice due to an outcry raising privacy concerns.
The interesting thing about Carrier IQ software is that it is so embedded and hidden in phones that it can’t be turned off or manipulated by users without, essentially, destroying the phone. One article in CNET describes the software as logging keystrokes, phone numbers, text messages, and other details and sending that information off to who knows where. The company denies that its software inspects the content of electronic communications, but the researcher who discovered the software maintains evidence to the contrary. Who knows how this will play out? Senator Chuck Schumer doesn’t like mall tracking, but so far no legislator has asked pointed questions on phone snitching. They must not use smart phones much, or more typically, Congress will make its phone exempt.
Much of the discussion in the press has focused on Android phones, though there is evidence that phones made by Blackberry and Nokia use the software as well. Doesn’t President Obama use a Blackberry? Maybe someone should tell him about this. Nokia, I might add, just bet the farm on Windows 8 phones by signing a deal with Microsoft to use the MS operating system somewhat exclusively on their phones. There are reports that iPhones have Carrier IQ software as well. The software is attractive to carriers as it can give them statistical information as to how their networks are used.
It’s all positive until the ugly privacy issues come to the fore. A company representative has stated that it is possible to see user content, but the company doesn’t look at it. Perhaps that might change if there became a need to have a look. Note also that smart phones are becoming the new credit cards. Just think of the marketing possibilities in the connected world where phone transactions are viewable -- by someone. And though I try not to be the paranoid type, I wonder what law enforcement and security agencies think about this capability.
There is a more practical consideration to this mound of data. How would Carrier IQ react when someone in a court case tries to subpoena the data they collected to show where someone was at a particular time, or what is the content of a message that may have been deleted. I couldn’t have killed Colonel Mustard in the drawing room with the candlestick. I was Facebooking across town at the time and I can prove it. One of the comments to the CNET article suggested that phones are turning into personal black boxes. It just may be coming to that, and the evidentiary possibilities are quite interesting when it comes to documenting personal activities. It all comes down to who is in control of that documentation. [MG]