Carrier IQ and the resulting media outcry was certainly the topic of the week in the tech community last week. Now that we’ve had the weekend to digest the information, a few news outlets (that I’ve noticed, anyway) are starting to promote the idea that Carrier IQ is a good service, collecting usage data so that carriers and cell phone manufacturers to improve their cellular service and phone quality so that users can have a better overall experience. Several of these stories go on to suggest that the hullabaloo created by the tech media have caused concerns that simply aren’t or shouldn’t be there.
One of the more puzzling articles I’ve read this morning comes from Matthew Miller at ZDNet, which basically states that since Carrier IQ is good for us, we should just sit back and let them do what they do. Mr Miller states that:
It today’s online world we give up a lot of privacy and it looks like the Carrier IQ issue is nothing to really be concerned aboutMatthew MillerZDNet
At its core, I agree with Mr. Miller’s argument. I believe that Carrier IQ can truly help companies such as Sprint and Samsung improve the services they provide to paying customers. Where I feel Mr. Miller completely misses the boat is his suggestion that because we as customers don’t notice that it’s on our devices, we should simply allow it to do its thing and track our information.
I completely disagree with this notion for two reasons. First, whether or not Carrier IQ actually records the content of your messages or sites you visit or whatever you do on your device, looking at the permission list as well as tests performed by a few security researchers show that it has the permissions and ability to track these things. One simple change on Carrier IQ’s end, either of their own volition or at the request of one of their customers, and they can start recording this information on their servers.
The second point of contention is the fact that Carrier IQ’s service is opt-in by default. When I install the popular CyanogenMod ROM on my phone, I get asked if I want to send usage statistics to better the service the CyanogenMod team providers. When I installed Google Chrome, Google asked if I wanted to send usage statistics to help Google improve the Chrome operating system. In both cases (and many more), I happily obliged because I knew what information they were using, and why they were using it. Furthermore, I believed in the causes enough to give up some privacy so that the services I know and like could continue to get better.
With Carrier IQ, the service runs in the background every time you start your phone, and you’re never told what they’re using your information for, let alone what information they’re actually using. Yes, we now know that the likes of Sprint and Samsung are using Carrier IQ’s software to improve the service they provide to their customers, but we wouldn’t have known this unless this situation was brought to our attention.
Carrier IQ and its customers never asked us if we wanted to help them improve their service, they forced us to help them. They don’t tell us what information they’re taking, and how that information is being used to better our experience. And even in a mobile world where our privacy is becoming less and less important, services that are opt-in by default are violations of privacy, and deserve to be brought to the attention of the public.