Carrier IQ: Privacy scare of the week

Neil Stevens CTO, Daily Caller
Font Size:

“Buyer beware” started out as a legal doctrine, but has turned into good advice. When purchasing wireless phone and Internet service, we should be careful about what we get. But sometimes online we go too far, and we make mountains of molehills as we light our torches and raise our pitchforks against the outrage of the week. Here’s how to generate the next great phone privacy scare:

1. Start with benign but provable facts,

2. Extrapolate using circumstantial evidence such as patents devoid of context,

3. Rely on mistrust of Big Telecom to switch off your readers’ nonsense detectors,

4. And finally state your extrapolations as fact!

First it was the GPS assistance scare, where researchers who knew just enough to bite them claimed that Apple and Google were tracking your every move! Sorry, no, it turns out they were really tracking the relationship between your current position and any public Wi-Fi networks around you. Google does it to this day, and in fact in my own testing on the HTC Flyer, Google only lets users get access to the data everyone else generates by volunteering to contribute to the database.

Now it’s the Carrier IQ scare that’s sending waves of outrage and horror across the Internet. Why yes, Carrier IQ is a firm that lets wireless carriers like AT&T and Sprint Nextel learn about how their networks are used, how well they perform, and what needs to be done to ensure better service.

How precisely do we think AT&T was able to improve its network after the iPhone 3G overloaded it? Guesswork? Tracking complaints on Twitter? No. AT&T had to gather hard data, and it tools like Carrier IQ’s appear to have been important to that effort. The same holds for Sprint, Verizon, and any other firm using the software. Handset manufacturers also use the firm’s technology to track the software and hardware for faults, reporting back to allow for better bug fixes later.

That network use is monitored is not in dispute. However it’s also been claimed that the carriers are tracking every keystroke entered into your handset. The source of that claim, per Engadget, is a patent filed by Carrier IQ that claims such functionality. That’s it. If there were direct evidence, we’d see it by now, but it simply doesn’t exist.

So relax. Here’s what comes next: Some lawyers will gin up a class action lawsuit, some checks of a few dollars will go out to users, and some large checks will go to the lawyers who ran the class action lawsuit. And as soon as those checks are cut, we’ll forget all about this and move on to the next phony privacy scare online.

Neil Stevens is a freelance software and web developer in Southern California. He contributes in his spare time to RedState.com and UnlikelyVoter.com.