John Colson: Hit and Run
December 7, 2011
So, do you have a smart phone?
Are you one of those zombies who walk around with their eyes glued to the tiny screen in your hand as you play games, manage your social network sites and check for messages?
Do you bump into things a lot?
Okay, forget I asked, it’s really none of my business. And what you do with your smart phone is really not anyone else’s business either, generically speaking, is it?
Well, if you really feel that way, you might want to tune in to the simmering controversy surrounding something called Carrier IQ, a bit of spying software technology recently outed by Trevor Eckhart, a 25-year old systems administrator in Connecticut.
Carrier IQ, it seems, is embedded in a huge number of the smart phones marketed around the world.
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As described by an online report from news.cnet.com, it is “software that comes pre-installed on certain handheld devices. It collects usage data that mobile operators and device manufactures analyze so they can make hardware, network and service improvements, according to Carrier IQ. It runs all the time and cannot be turned off, although it can be removed by unlocking the phone and gaining administrator access, which typically voids the warranty.”
According to some commentators, it is no more invasive than other smart-phone software that engages in exactly the same kind of monitoring function.
But this one has kicked up a firestorm, because a growing number of observers of all things digital are convinced that Carrier IQ is going a bit further in its monitoring. It is, they say, nothing short of having a spy in your phone that can track you and map you and expose your every secret.
These doubters say the software is logging your keystrokes, storing the websites you visit and in general creating a digital profile filled with everything you do on your smart phone, every place you go to with your phone in your pocket, and who knows what else?
The ruckus has become so loud on the Web that some European governments are investigating the company and its practices to make sure privacy laws are not being violated.
According to my research, these investigators include officials from the Bavarian State Office for Data Protection, the United Kingdom Information Commissioner and the European Consumers Organization.
Carrier IQ, according to online news reports, has responded to the tumult by saying it is not doing anything that other software companies aren’t doing, too.
And besides, the company reportedly claimed, despite the vast amount of information being gathered, they don’t really look at it all, though they concede that the information is being collected and passed on to service carriers.
I find the whole thing amusing, but only in so far as I am oh, so happy I do not own a smart phone. I carry a vintage Motorola phone that basically sends and receives calls, and not much else. I can text, but there is no keyboard, so I have to hunt and peck my way through the numerical keypad to get to the right letters. Takes forever, and I’m not that interested, anyway, so I don’t bother.
But aside from chuckling about how enslaved we are becoming as a race, always connected, always under one big eye in the sky or another, I do think this little tempest in a teapot is troubling.
I read a piece by a guy named Joe Wilcox, writing online for betanews.com, who thinks the whole thing is fishy, and wonders why they collect the data if they don’t use it.
Another website, mashable.com, reports that Apple will no longer support the software on iPhones and will eliminate it completely from future iPhone software.
If it’s so easy for phone manufacturers to dump Carrier IQ, if it’s so unnecessary that it can be tossed aside like yesterday’s sandwich wrapper, why is it there in the first place?
I don’t know about you, but I’ve become convinced that governments are making unheralded use of the information highway to keep tabs on us in ways I don’t like.
And I fear that this is another example of a tendency to spy on us even when we aren’t doing anything criminal, aren’t linked up to terrorist cells or networks, aren’t someone they should be spying on for any damned reason.
And if Carrier IQ is suspect in this regard, I’m sure there are other, similar software packages we should be worried about.
Welcome to 1984, folks.