In the fiercely competitive world of mobile applications, most press is good press and can lead to a very tidy payday when an app goes viral. Other press is not so good. Such was the case for Carrier IQ, the tracking software embedded into roughly 150 million smartphones the world over, leading to a Senate inquiry and a class action law suit.
The story hit the front page after security researcher Trevor Eckhart posted a 17-minute video detailing precisely what kind of information Carrier IQ can collect: keystroke logs (that is, records of every single button pressed on your phone), incoming SMS messages, and supposedly encrypted web browsing transactions. This in and of itself might not have created such a stir had Carrier IQ not immediately sent a cease and desist letter, demanding that Eckhart take the video down. Eckhart did not and the ensuing firestorm of media attention caught the company off guard.
Once it got its bearings, Carrier IQ released a statement in which it “vigorously disagreed” with the allegations of privacy violation, stating that “while a few individuals have identified that there is a great deal of information available to the Carrier IQ software inside the handset, our software does not record, store or transmit the contents of SMS messages, email, photographs, audio or video.” Carrier IQ was not alone in downplaying the issue. For example, Lance Ulanoff over at Mashable also believes the story is much ado about nothing, citing the fact that just about every machine out there runs diagnostic programs not unlike Carrier IQ, usually without the user’s consent or even knowledge. “The situation is way overblown and spiraling out of control”, wrote Ulanoff, concluding that the app’s function is so run-of-the-mill in the industry that it probably never even occurred to Carrier IQ to alert consumers to the presence of its app on their phones in the first place.
Perhaps. It will likely be some time before the dust settles, and by the end of it all it’s likely the industry will have to do quite a bit of soul-searching as it wrestles with the heady questions of optimal service, transparency, and privacy rights.