No Such Thing as Privacy When It Comes to Smartphones

Sue Marquette Poremba
Slide Show

Top 10 Privacy Issues for 2011

Social media and location-based technologies top the list of concerns.

Is your phone spying on you?

Most likely, yes.

Right now, a piece of software called Carrier IQ is making all kinds of news. I first found out about it when I was scrolling through Yahoo's front page and noticed an article about secret software on most smartphones. Of course, I was not very shocked to read that a software could be tracking your every move. I was bothered, however, to read that phone carriers and phone developers might be allowing keylogging software on the phones without alerting phone owners.

Let me provide a little backstory if you haven't heard about this yet, as the story is fascinating, a bit incredulous and downright scary, depending on your point of view. According to a ComputerWorld story, Carrier IQ sells a software that helps wireless service providers diagnose service and quality-related problems with individual phones. This is software that will tell your carrier why calls are dropped or why the battery is draining too quickly. As ComputerWorld said:

The software can be used to collect data for analyzing service quality, device quality and what Carrier IQ calls mobile customer experience. Carrier IQ says its software is installed on over 150 million devices worldwide.

The trouble started when a security researcher showed how Carrier IQ can be modified to perform intrusive tracking on a number of different smartphone OSes, including keylogging. PCWorld was more blunt in how it presented the story, saying that researchers accused Carrier IQ of installing malware on all of these phones and put up a YouTube video to show how the software runs in the background.

Malware may be too harsh a word, Tim Wyatt, Lookout's principal engineer, said on his blog. Carrier IQ isn't being flagged as malware by Lookout's software and adds that it doesn't appear to be keylogging.

Not surprisingly, Carrier IQ, the OS developers, the phone manufacturers and the wireless carriers are putting out releases to claim their innocence in the matter. For example, from TIME:

Despite being initially identified as manufacturing devices using Carrier IQ, both Nokia and RIM have since denied any responsibility, with Nokia calling such claims "inaccurate" and uncategorically saying that "these reports are wrong," while Research in Motion issued a statement saying that the company "does not pre-install the CarrierIQ application on BlackBerry smartphones and has never done so," adding that it also "does not authorize its carrier partners to install the CarrierIQ application on BlackBerry smartphones before sales or distribution and has never done so."

Now Congress is involved, with Senator Al Franken leading the charge of an investigation. Does this software break federal privacy laws? Is it illegal wiretapping?

Carrier IQ is making all the headlines right now, but there are other phone-related privacy issues that could very well be - and maybe should be - headlines today. For example, Senator Charles Schumer raised privacy concerns over shopping malls that used a technology called Footpath to track customers via their cell phones. The only warning customers were given was a sign in the malls that an anonymous mobile phone survey was being conducted. Customers weren't given the opportunity to opt out (sounds like they weren't given the choice on whether to opt in, either). And then there is the Android Locator app that tracks your location via Wi-Fi, without giving users the opportunity to opt in and, again, it doesn't make things easy to opt out.

The Carrier IQ story will be one to follow. I would like to know just how much it is tracking and what and how it is tracking that information. I admit the rumor of keylogging got my attention because it is very difficult to hide from keyloggers. You can't just change your password, after all, because they can track that. But it is also important to remember that this is just one story about smartphones and privacy. It is growing more clear that if you use a smartphone, someone, somewhere, knows where you are and maybe what you are doing.

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