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Carrier IQ, an interesting story of deception or what we could call the Facebook syndrome

It all started with some findings published by Trevor Exkhart on his website a few weeks ago.

He found that a Californian based company called Carrier IQ (CIQ) had develop a software that was acting as a *key logger* and was installed by default on many different mobile devices: Android, Blackberry, Nokia Phones, iPhones (iOS 3.x to 5.x), and also tablets.

The important point here, is that this software is intentionally installed/provided by the devices manufacturers or network carriers.It is quite amazing how widespread the use of that spying software is (the BBC reported 140 Million devices). This is not limited to only one type of device or provider. What they collect might be different (apparently much less on iOS than Android), but it shows a systemic desire from companies who make and sell those devices to gather usage and user information.

This is what I would call, the Facebook syndrome!

The official stance from CIQ was that their software was only used for improving the “network experience” by providing some information back to carrier and phone manufacturer such as signal strength, network information, etc.
They explicitly stated that they “do not and cannot look at the contents of messages, photos, videos, etc., using this tool”.

This is not what you would say from a software that logs all the key pressed on your device…

Again, it is important to note that by default their software is not hidden (there is a visible check-mark in the status bar) but this can be modified by 3rd parties. And it is being modified!

One example given by Trevor is Verizon in the US, although you can opt out, by default the phones they sell will record and transmit (?) the following personal user information: any URL accessed, including potential search queries and the location of the device. This is what could be considered as a significant personal privacy invasion.

So how did CIQ reacted to Trevor’s post?
By sending him a Cease and Desist letter on the 16th of November!

They claimed Trevor was in copyright infringement (because of some of their publicly available training material having been referenced) and making false allegations.

As reported on The Register on the 24th of November, they eventually withdrew their legal threats thanks to the legal help of the EFF, who nicely summarizes the case on their website, and also to a new post showing exactly what Trevor meant by calling CIQ software a “root kit” (I called it a “key logger earlier”, but root kit is more accurate and also has wider security implications).

Trevor’s second CIQ article, goes into details as to why CIQ software is indeed a root-kit. With a video showing the different steps required to reproduce his tests. It also describes how the data is collected even if you are off the network and, at least on an HTC phone, the data is not really anonymised.

Since then, another mobile phone hacker has published some findings about CIQ, this time confirming that Apple has included CIQ software in all its iOS version from iOS3 to the latest iOS5. However, it seems that the information logged on the Apple devices is much less than what is logged on Androids': no URL nor SMS and the location is only sent if you have allowed for it to be, furthermore, that information is not transmitted by default but only if the user manually choose to send diagnostic information to Apple.

All this has generated an increasing level of noise and attention:

As pointed out in a ViaForensics article, it is not clear when and if the data CIQ logs on the phone is always transmitted or just remains on it. And if transmitted, to where? But if it is being transmitted, I have a little story for you…

A few years ago I went on holiday and decided to take an international data plan, I had an iPhone 3G at the time, and I did monitor my data consumption every day with the built-in iOS bandwidth statistics. I stopped using data on my phone when I reached 90% of my allowed and pre paid consumption.

I was therefore very surprised when I was charged for going over my data allowance by a good margin! How could I have miscalculated my data consumption by so much!? After complaining to my provider they eventually claimed that the built-in iOS bandwidth statistics were only showing average figures and were not accurate. I also read in some forum at the time, that Apple claimed their figures should be taken as an estimate only. With that in mind, I decided not to pursue further, accepted to pay the extra fee and promised myself never to use data roaming again.

Now, it would be interesting to know if all the network data generated by CIQ is counted in those mobile OS network bandwidth statistics or if, like the information it gathers, they are also hidden from view.
After all, if the provider goes at length to hide the data they collect from you, they probably don’t want you to see that sealed fat envelop leaving your phone!

If that’s that case, how legal is this?! not only spying/gathering user information is questionable but doing so could be at the expense of the user! Couldn’t it be considered as a hidden cost to their service? could it explain the unexplainable extra fee I had to pay?

So I have three final comments to make:

  1. Mobile device companies are like any others, they want users’ personal information, but unlike others, they have full control of the device you discuss you life on.
  2. Opting for usage statistics, should be just that, an optional choice! and it should be made clear that it could result in extra cost, especially when roaming!
  3. If CIQ data consumption is also hidden from mobile OS(es) statistics then this is an extra hidden cost to the user
Now, where have I kept my 10 years old beloved Nokia 8210?
UPDATE, 12th of December 2011: CarrierIQ has responded to the issues discovered by Trevor through a 19 pages document. Not sure I find it very convincing.
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