When developer Trevor Eckhart recently demonstrated how the Carrier IQ software that is present on most smartphones not only cannot be turned off by the user, but also has the ability of tracking every button push as well as the content of all text messages, a flurry of class actions suits accused the company and the various manufacturers of violations under the US Federal Wiretap Act. Stating that consumers’ “phones relay all sorts of information about them, often without their knowledge or consent,” Representative Edward Markey (D-MA) who is also the co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus, has released Mobile Device Privacy Act draft legislation that would mandate the full disclosure of any “software on their mobile devices that can collect and transmit their personal and sensitive information.” The smartphone companies, however, are disputing that any personal information is being collected, as it is strictly for “diagnostic” purposes.
140+ Million Smartphones Incorporate Tracking Software
Carrier IQ and the various manufacturers of the over 140 million handsets that utilize the software are insisting that the functions are strictly used to resolve device and network issues, and that the smartphones do “not record, store or transmit the contents of SMS messages, email, photographs, audio or video.” The data is anonymized, encrypted and not recorded. Surprisingly, Sprint stated that they use Carrier IQ to “analyze device and network performance to identify problems and resolve them,” which indicates that they are indeed stored in some fashion, otherwise the analysis would be limited to real time activities only and bear very little overall diagnostic value and validity.
Google’s Policy Changed & Now Personal Data Is Recorded
The tenet that the data is collected but not recorded is essentially the same argument used for years by Google in defending their policy to scan every word in every Gmail ever sent in order to serve ads relevant to various keywords discovered within the text. This data was originally only utilized for the instantaneous determination of specific keyword ads to serve to the Google user, but with time that policy has changed and now every single byte of activity generated by anyone logged onto any Google service will be collected and packaged into a “personal profile.” With the recent revelation that all of the myriad of activities performed by Google users across all their numerous platforms will be integrated into a single personal profile, netizens are now facing the likelihood that extensive information they intended to remain private will now be for sale to the highest bidder.
Blistering Microsoft Parody
Microsoft did not pull many punches in a recently released Office 365 promotional video where an email user confronts a Gmailman’s conclusion of a painful nether regions burning sensation and the serving of a topical ointment ad. She complains that the email actually dealt with her fear of burning a lasagna that her husband thinks is sensational and concludes that it’s really none of his business… to which Gmailman replies “my business, your business, it’s all business… it’s the business of advertising!” Although it can be stated with a fair degree of confidence that the various smartphone manufacturers and carriers are not capturing this data at this time, we have all seen that policies like this can become ethereal as soon as the various parties involved succumb to the irresistible siren song of billions of ad dollars.
The question of whether Carrier IQ collected information will end up as part of a smartphone “personal profile” that will be made available to marketers remains open at this time, but the existence of the mechanism whereby this information could be collected remains embedded in the smartphone that is currently in your pocket or purse. Given the passion that many users have for their smartphones as the hub of their digital lives, the question that has to be asked is if we are all perfectly comfortable in turning over to network carriers, smartphone manufacturers and even possibly major corporate marketers every word we’ve ever texted, every site we’ve ever visited and every image we’ve ever exchanged on our mobile web enabled devices.