While I enjoy the increasing number of things I have been able to do with each iteration of mobile technology on the market, I’ve always held a dark spot in my heart for wireless carriers. First there’s the financial factor – the amount of money they charge for what should be no additional charge, caps on tiered data, or even just cost to the user in general (I enjoy a $100+ per month phone bill for all the crap I have).
As mobile technology has become more developed though, the prices seem to be going up, and what the consumer is getting seems to be less. On top of that there’s the creep factor, which is really nothing more than privacy and business practices. Recently Verizon Wireless sent me a letter about an opt-out option for their new ad tracking system that would serve to provide me better targeted ads based on my activity and location. I opted out due to a certain level of discomfort with privacy when I had the chance, but I give Verizon credit for voluntarily saying “Hey Tushar, here’s some things that what we want to do, are you in?” They laid out what they were doing, and after understanding it I had a choice. Now granted any doctors or lawyers reading this are going to cringe at the phrase I’m about to use, but if the activity has the informed consent of the consumer (yeah I said it) then that’s something I may be able to get on board with. I would assume that other carriers do something similar as far as activity-based targeted ad programs. After all, ad revenue does make the world spin ‘round.
But then I read today about something that could be a tremendous breach in privacy and almost tantamount to data theft, perpetrated by mobile carriers against their customers. This revelation came from security researcher Trevor Eckhart concerning a software package called Carrier IQ, which seems to be embedded in at least some phones on major U.S. carriers. Carrier IQ claims that their software gathers “information off the handset to understand the mobile-user experience, where phone calls are dropped, where signal quality is poor, why applications crash and battery life.” Turns out that while it wasn’t really a secret that this function was installed on many Android phones, no one really knew any of the inner workings of the software and what kind of data it actually captures. That is, until Eckhart found some things that can only be described as suspect at best last week. Carrier IQ tried to hand him a cease and desist letter to quiet him down a bit, but with the help of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Carrier IQ not only backed off but issued an apology (in which they lay out their argument above). He followed up by releasing a video playing around with it on his HTC Evo. You can see the video on YouTube here.