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There’s still a lot we don’t know about Carrier IQ

Molly Wood Dec 7, 2011

Senator Al Franken wants some answers about Carrier IQ. The Minnesota Democrat is giving several wireless carriers and phone manufacturers until next Wednesday to answer questions about exactly how they’re using software from Carrier IQ and what they’re doing with the information it collects.

We talked about this last week in the wake of charges that this app logs keystrokes, spying on everything you do on the phone. Since then, there have been numerous lawsuits and tough words from politicians.

We called up Chris Soghoian, a privacy researcher who’s been following the case closely. He says some things are clearer, others. aren’t. “What we know now is that the company’s software,” says Soghoian, “which is pre-installed onto more than 150 million cell phones in the United States, is capable of capturing a large amount of information, but not as much information as people thought before.”

So it’s not spying? “It doesn’t seem like Carrier IQ’s software is doing that,” he says. “And in fact, Carrier IQ is largely pointing the finger at the mobile phone companies, the Sprints and AT&Ts of the world, and saying we just make the software. Ultimately it’s up to the carrier to decide how it’s going to be used. What the company has acknowledged is that they are capturing the website addresses of every page that you view via your phone. Now, they’re careful to distinguish between the address of the page and the content of the page, but for many sensitive things such as search engine queries or information about medical symptoms that you look up online, just the information about which page you’re going to is very sensitive by itself.”

Is this information being associated with your name? And how exactly is it being mined? That’s what Franken wants to know. I’d like to know that too. The carriers say they need the information so networks will work better.

“Carriers certainly benefit by having diagnostic information, so if you have a dropped call, it’s helpful to know how often that’s occurred or where you were when the call was dropped, but that’s information they can obtain from their own end. Their own equipment knows the call is terminated. Their own equipment knows when you have one bar versus five bars,” says Soghoian.

So your carrier isn’t reading your text messages. But if your phone has Carrier IQ, it can get other valuable information: your favorite apps, your favorite websites, all that customer data that is worth so much for companies trying to compete.

“The carriers don’t want to be providers of raw data,” Soghoian says. “They don’t want to be dumb pipes, they want to extract as much value out of the phone ecosystem as possible and for that to happen, they need to know what you’re doing.”

Also in today’s program, documents have been made public from Apple’s suit against Samsung. Apple says Samsung is free to make whatever tablet it wants to as long as it’s not rectangular or has rounded corners or is easy to use or has a smooth screen or resembles an iPad in any way, shape, or form.

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