The public outcry over wireless network diagnostics maker Carrier IQ and its eponymous software for smartphones has a reached a fever pitch. The application, which sits on more than 141 million devices, is taking some serious heat from privacy advocates, legal experts, and law makers, not to mention everyday users, who fear that the software is capturing data ranging from the content of users' text messages to the websites they visit. As the controversy cloud continues to mushroom, more users are beginning to ask what Carrier IQ is, how it functions, and if it can be disabled or uninstalled from their phones.
Here's a quick Carrier IQ FAQ to get you up to speed.
What is Carrier IQ?
Developed by California-based Carrier IQ, Inc., Carrier IQ is, according to the company's website, a diagnostic tool that is built directly into a host of smartphones from carriers, including T-Mobile, Sprint, and AT&T, to help them develop a better understanding of network and handset performance issues.
How Does it Work?
The software functions by collecting "operational information" from users' smartphones, feature phones, and tablets. That information is then anonymized, stripped of all personally identifiable information, and carriers then use the information to improve network performance.
Does it Read Your Keystrokes?
Much has been made about the initial YouTube video posted by Trevor Eckhart, the developer who first brought the Carrier IQ issue to light. In it, Eckhart shows the software running on his HTC Evo while it's in airplane mode. As he presses keys on his phone, the Carrier IQ software immediately registers his keystrokes. Yet in a press release, Carrier IQ specifically states that it does not record users' keystrokes.
In an interview with SecurityNewsDaily, a sister site of Laptopmag.com, security expert Dan Rosenberg with Virtual Security Research, pointed out that in his video Eckhart never claims that the content Carrier IQ picks up is being collected and sent to the software company, nor does Eckart try to prove as much. "At no point does he enter a debugger and look inside the Carrier IQ applications, and at no point does he run a network sniffer and look at what data is being transmitted to Carrier IQ."
In an open letter the posted on Pastebin, Rosenberg said after reverse engineering Carrier IQ he was unable to find any evidence that the company is, "collecting anything more than what they've publicly claimed: anonymized metrics data. There's a big difference between, "look, it does something when I press a key," and, "it's sending all my keystrokes to the carrier."
Carrier IQ has repeatedly gone on the record since the controversy first erupted stating that its software does not store or send keystroke information. To top it all off, the Carrier IQ software can be customized for whatever carrier happens to be using it. Meaning that the information it collects is determined by your carrier and not Carrier IQ itself, according to Engadget. For now, it's still not completely clear whether the software is collecting data through keystrokes. And until the company reconciles what was shown in Eckhart's video with its own statements, it will remain unclear.
Can Carrier IQ Track Your Location?
The short answer is, we're not sure yet. According to Eckhart's video, Carrier IQ is fully capable of tracking users' locations. But again, Carrier IQ denies this notion, saying it, "Does not provide tracking tools." The software can, however, tell carriers where a customer was when their wireless signal failed. While information like this may help service providers better understand potential network issues, for some it's a scary proposition.
Is Carrier IQ on Your Phone?
Chances are you have at least some form of Carrier IQ sitting on your phone at this moment. T-Mobile, Sprint, and AT&T have all come forward with statements indicating that they have a version of Carrier IQ's software on their Android devices. AT&T and Sprint iPhone users will also find a variant of Carrier IQ on their devices.
Can You Disable Carrier IQ?
If you're an iPhone user, disabling Carrier IQ is a fairly simple affair. Just tap General under your phone's Settings menu, open the About section, tap Diagnostic & Usage and press don't send under Automatically Send. Carrier IQ will now be deactivated on your phone. If you're using an Android device, disabling the software requires that you root your phone with a base Android ROM. As LifeHacker points out, modded versions of your device manufacturer's ROM will still have Carrier IQ active.
Is Carrier IQ a Privacy Threat?
That's the million dollar question. The truth is, it's still unclear. Rosenberg says the software isn't a true threat in its current form, but could be manipulated and abused later. Still others claim the software is a serious issue that needs to brought to users' attention. John Graham-Cumming, vice president of engineering for the software company Causata, meanwhile, calls for real research into what the CarrierIQ software is doing with the user information it sees.
"Otherwise, these claims about all my keystrokes being sent to some third-party company are just claims without any substance to back them up," he wrote on his personal blog. Arguments like this haven't stopped Senator Al Franken from calling on Carrier IQ to step forward and answer allegations that the company isn't tracking users' personal data.
There is still a lot of information coming out on this topic, so be sure to check back here for further updates.