After Hours

Carrier IQ: It's just part of the deal with the devil

Donovan Colbert says that we've become complacent with devices that have built-in tracking and usage monitoring that report back and aren't easily disabled.

Everyone is up in arms and outraged over the recent Carrier scandal. If you haven't been keeping score, there's code being described as a rootkit or keylogger on many smartphones, although it seems the worst on HTC Android phones. Anyhow, it's a fairly serious violation of consumer trust, privacy, and rights in general.

But I am afraid that most people who are responding to this particular violation of the public trust are missing the forest for the trees. Carrier IQ isn't really the problem -- rather, it's symptomatic of a much more wide-ranging erosion of our consumer freedoms being perpetuated by companies and organizations that are desperately trying to put the genie of the PC era back into its digital bottle.

Here's a quick quiz:

Q: What does the move to light-weight, ROM-based mobile OS platforms to Blu-ray media and to the HDMI electronics interface for televisions and attached devices all have in common? A: They all deliver the end user a much enhanced, superior experience that delivers increased ease of use and convenience, right?

Bzzzt. Wrong. Well, maybe. At least, that's not entirely the truth. Let's start by looking at Blu-ray, which has been pushed as a high definition, feature-enhanced evolution to the DVD format. Who wouldn't want that? But as a relatively early adopter, I now find that I'm inclined to stick with DVD. What are the problems?

Blu-ray seems a little less bulletproof. Sometimes it chokes on a DVD that plays fine on a regular DVD player. Sometimes it'll even choke on a Blu-ray disk -- and it may require a special patch from the manufacturer or from the DVD publisher. It's also frequently slower to load menus and get to the actual movie. In fact, at the first sign of any playback difficulties on what is now our 3rd Blu-ray player (all from different manufacturers), rather than waste time trying to get it to work, if it is a DVD, we just pull it out, turn on the old, original Xbox, and pop the disk in there -- where of course, nine times out of 10 it works perfectly.

What could be the cause of such unsatisfactory performance from what is supposed to be the new, cutting-edge, feature-enhanced media delivery solution? Simple. Copy protection.

Once you get everything set up with your Blu-ray, you'll find that BD-Live is a dubious benefit at best, especially if you've got any kind of mistrust about inviting Sony and Warner Bros. into your home by registering for their online enhanced Blu-ray features. Is the picture better? Well, I suppose so -- but we're getting into that audiophile territory where I have to ask myself, "Is it really worth the difference of what you can see or hear in improvement?"

The pitch on why we should upgrade to Blu-ray was improved video and enhanced features, but the real reason they wanted us to switch was to better control how we can use their media. Legal questions of the DMCA aside, the reality is that Blu-ray makes it harder for consumers to rip their disks to digital format, for purposes of privacy or what should be considered fair use. Sony, the MPAA, and other studios got us to pay to upgrade to a system that puts better locks on their IP -- although arguably, they're still struggling to put a stake into the heart of the DVD disk.

I'm paranoid about my systems phoning home, leaking info, or otherwise exposing my personal data to outside sources. I've always secretly doubted that Windows, OS X, or Linux are as secure as we like to think they are. There are probably back doors and other security compromising features that are undocumented and built into modern OS platforms, probably in cooperation with the federal government. But at least with the traditional PC desktop OS paradigm, we -- the end user, consumer, and owner of the PC -- had tremendous flexibility and ease of deciding what platform we would run.

Although I've been pretty gung-ho about the new wave of mobile technology, I've had strong reservations that I've mostly left unspoken. I think it's possible that we may see an informal, underground, retro-net based on older systems and platforms arise. I wonder how many technical types are hanging onto older equipment, at least partially because of the concept that it might be more trustworthy than modern devices?

The sophistication by which modern equipment erodes my rights as a consumer is constantly increasing and becoming more difficult to circumvent. In many cases, this difficulty is complicit with lawmakers in making it actually illegal to attempt to circumvent the liberty-eroding "features" of those modern devices. But my old Amiga or Mac Classic or Pentium 4 running Windows 98 -- those devices predate a focus on limiting consumer liberties through hardware and platform native restrictions.

I don't know about you, but I feel like I've been shook down when a merchant, vendor, or manufacturer charges me for something and then tries to charge me again for the same thing. When Verizon requires $20 extra a month to enable tethering, just so that I can use a portion of my already-capped limit for devices other than my phone to surf wirelessly, it feels like they're having their way with me. I get that same feeling when I've purchased a movie on DVD, and then I'm charged again for the ability to watch that same movie on a digital device.

Carrier IQ is just another way this issue presents itself. The mobile OS is degrees more difficult to alter for the average user, and it's (ironically) far more popular and accessible at the same time. So, you've got something that is chillingly invasive, more difficult to modify, potentially illegal to tamper with (the courts and lawmakers are still working these details out), and -- at the same time -- is seeing massive consumer adoption in numbers that make the traditional PC OS seem kind of paltry by comparison.

Am I just paranoid and alarmist, or is anyone else as disturbed by this aspect as I am? I'm less concerned with the implications of Carrier IQ monitoring and phoning home with sensitive user information (how long exactly did you look at that photograph in your gallery, and which picture was it? The Carrier IQ database knows). This is certainly bad news, but more troubling is the fact that this is so pervasive and so difficult to put the brakes on.

Like so many other things, the erosion is so gradual and difficult to perceive, we don't even realize what we've lost. The new norm is devices that have built-in tracking and usage monitoring that report back, it can't easily be disabled, and we become complacent with that situation. A decade ago, if any vendor or manufacturer tried this with a PC platform, the uproar would have been deafening. Companies tried these kind of things with PCs, got caught, and were rebuked. The Sony rootkit is probably the most infamous example. But on the new generation of mobile device, it seems like we take it for granted that this is just part of the deal with the devil we make for our shiny smartphones and tablets.

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About

Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his profession...

27 comments
JesusChristSuperStar
JesusChristSuperStar

No, Mr. Colbert, you are definitely NOT the only one paranoid about this invasion of privacy and freedom. Problem is, those of us who see what is lurking around the corner are in the minority, and the tide is flowing in the opposite direction. To reverse that tide, it would take educating the masses, but unfortunately, the foxes are in charge of educating the hens. It is going to be a long hard uphill battle, and I am not confident that we will win in the end.

shawn_collins24
shawn_collins24

I'm a full-time student and, hence, don't have much of a social life. I game up my cellphone when I started school because, quite simply, I just don't need one right now. I have been contemplating getting a smartphone -which I had never owned- at the beginning of next year. Now, I will not. It's not just the deception (for me, at least). What was MORE disturbing was that you could not force the application to shut down. I find it hard to believe with that capability disabled -being able to force an app to shut down- that the carriers did not know. They were just hoping they wouldn't get caught. You can't really blame Carrier IQ, although I wouldn't work for such a company. You have to blame the cell-phone providers who provide a market for such things. I'm in total agreement with the writer of this article! Give me the old technology. To give what may be a more alarming example to most (but not having to do with computers): Our local police department in a town of 50,000 (fifty-thousand, give or take 5,000) has recently purchased a system. This system is mounted in a vehicle and parked. When activated, it automatically records all license plate numbers and runs them to see if they are connected with any warrants, stolen vehicles, etc. The premise behind this may sound tame, but the arguments that have been arising is that now the police department knows who has been where and at what time. Big Brother anyone? Give me my old technology anytime! I still have valid and purchased CDs of older versions of Windows. Still, I wonder how long I will stay with Windows given some comments regarding the upcoming Windows 8 UI! (Forgive my ADHD, but all this IS tied together!) Perhaps I should simply switch to Linux and save Windows for a virtual or stand-alone machine when only absolutely necessary! Back to the article and Carrier IQ: I'm in line with the writer's thinking that we have become complacent and simply allowed these things to happen. I know it's easier to say "don't use the product" than it is to actually do. I feel, however, that we must speak out. WHY do I legally have to insert a DVD into my computer in order to play it over my network to my media player? I bought the DVD! I'm the only one watching it! I don't copy it for others! Well, OK, I admit I SOMETIMES have friends over and in exchange for me buying or renting the DVD they will buy pizza and refreshments. I sure hope I'm not violating some law there! Shawn Collins

jev.case-24297005939114168965253281161338
jev.case-24297005939114168965253281161338

Last night I was discussing this very thing, how consumer privacy is definitely being invaded. I find it frustrating and it happens in many different circumstances, carrier IQ being the latest of these. I am especially aware of how much info Google tries to collect about you habits and personal life on the internet. I find it disturbing, most people I talk to don't care; maybe I'm just paranoid. What about Facebook timeline? Isn't this just another giant information collecting enterprise? What I would like to know is what exactly do they use this information for other than leveraging it for advertisements. I guess that's reason enough to gather it but I can't help but wonder if there is an additional purpose. But maybe I am just paranoid.

hemophilic
hemophilic

If you are getting a product or service for free, YOU are the thing being sold. More often than not, you're still sold even if you DO pay. Stop watching movies and surfing the web if you don't want to be inconvenienced or tracked or fleeced. Try reading a paper book. The stories are generally more rich and developed in paper form anyway. Become a luddite or deal with the trappings of modern technology. There is nothing new here.

BillGates_z
BillGates_z

The conspiracy is to nickle and dime consumers to DEATH. Make us pay to contribute to market research to push more crap at us for more fees. We don't have to and shouldn't accept it. I've lived without Sony stuff since the "play your CD and install Sony rootkit " debacle. This isn't about advertising a product. Forget service, forget ethics EVERYTHING is marketing by the numbers and, if we allow it, some pretty devious manipulation. I didn't sign away my privacy so I could make a phone call. Would anyone really sign a contract that plainly said "we have the right to monitor your calls and use this information any way we choose."?

SiO2
SiO2

the beast itself is something we should be accustomed to by now. Microsoft sell you a contract to use a piece of software, you willingly fill in the registration with your personal details and never mind what they do with them. MS being a responsible company of course... Facebook OPENLY demands all your base, and you willingly give it to them, comfortable in the knowledge that all they are going to do is give it to everyone you know, and a bunch more you dont. Google tracks you across its networks and uses the information to feed you more of what you want in the same way, but no-one complains because they get less inappropriate content in their faces as a result. Unless they count spam that is! Banks keep detailed records of every single transaction we make, seemingly forever. We trust said organisations to keep our data safe, but they dont - and we still trust them with our money. eBay keeps a permanent record of every person you speak to, let alone trade with, and also keeps a record of everything they've said about you, publicly. Which we have no problem with because it allows us to judge each other based on those merits - or otherwise. ISPs hold and use data pertaining to where we go online and when for purposes of security (so they tell us), video cameras line our streets recording our whereabouts and we largely dont mind because it gives us a sense of security, despite enabling the watchers to track our every move. BlueRay players routinely report to the industry with what we watch and when we watch it so they can target ads that we (dont necessarily) want to see, and we have no problem with that because after all, the makers of said content only want to serve us better - dont they? I'm glad I'm in the UK where as far as I know, its illegal to COVERTLY obtain information from a person unwilling to supply it, and thats my only real issue with CarrierIQ. That being said, I'm under no illusion that anything I do online or anywhere else public is in any way private, so as a result I have no equipment in my living space that is public - no Webcam, no Xbox Live (although I do play a lot of LAN games and have several boxes), no BlueRay, and I stay well clear of YouTube and Facebook. I also deliberately keep my phone's GPS off unless I need it, and dont use WIFI hotspots or public computers either. Seems paranoid maybe, but its nothing I havent done all my life before technology came along and made it more complicated. I never pick up the phone and have to speak to someone I dont know when it rings, I get no spam in my email and only the occasional junk mail in my letterbox - and the only price I pay for such peace is that my friends cant 'Like' that I popped out for milk. The whole world appears to have traded privacy for transparency in the name of greed, and while transparency is the more socially secure option, it has to be multilateral.

coriscux
coriscux

... The problem are those Billion Dollar Telcos, that demand those kind of RootKits-Tracking-whatever Software to be built inside the devices.The software is a vendor only and it evolves in the market as long there's demand for it's product. Hardware providers Like HTC, Samsung, Motorola.. they just want to sell devices, period. Telcos will argue "well we agree with you on buying a monthly plan, and we give you or sell you a phone for half or less the price it cost, but..... " and here where the problem starts. I'm a proud owner of an HTC, bought free from Telcos, and free from Carrier IQ. Maybe we don't need a plan with a phone for 2 or less years. Maybe we can change phones only after 4 years or more. Blu-Ray, humm...i think it was dead since day one. And now they starting to talk about Quad-Def. Bumer!

sqlerror
sqlerror

Can't we as millions of consumers be so polite to pay CarrierIQ a nice visit back, right at their front door?. Let's all simultaniously surf to Carrier-iq, call them or e-mail them with our smartphones. Milions of mobile users will generate more data than CarrierIQ can chew. Communicators in all countries Unite and call back! ;-)

seanferd
seanferd

Well thought-out and written, too. Not so much most of the comments so far... But I think it is all symptomatic of the general culture of control - not just in technology, or by using technology, but in everything. The authoritarians are on the rise again, which isn't new, but they seem to have the boil-the-frog-slowly thing down pat, intentionally or not.

SOLARFINDER
SOLARFINDER

This is a nice article. I agree with what you said, and unfortunately, the only way to have the ability to utilize these devices is to suck it up, get whipped, and then take it in the rear. On your above mentioned DVD/BluRay concerns, I agree with the need to stop the pervasive p2p and other methods of sharing, however, I believe that if I own the property, I should be able to copy that for personal use and not have to work with sub-par materials and have to either repurchase new media when my movie fails or to live with the poor playback. I have seen the pervasive nature of commercial entities closing in on my rights, and the ability to retain my rights that should be afforded to me by the purchase of the IP for personal use to a paradigm shift to a more leased concept where the product was never mine in the first place, rather it is my ability to lease their IP for a single purpose and then I have to give it back. What did the old Mission Impossible show say, "This message will...." :) Again, Nice story and I agree with your anger.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

I've been feeling this way for over a decade. But a big part of the problem is us, the consumers. To a large degree, these devices we love are being subsidized by the expected revenue from the long-term add-ons. People need to understand that as things become more and more subsidized, we are no longer the customer. When you are paying $100 to free for a phone that actually costs several times that, you are not the customer for that phone; The phone company that paid for it is. I would much prefer to pay a higher up-front cost to have a device that I totally own and control, and then pay a lower price for the service. Unfortunately, too many people like the new "free" phone every 12 to 24 months. Only now are some people learning how expensive "free" really is.

BALTHOR
BALTHOR

It's a virus.There's more virus than people!

fairportfan
fairportfan

...as i can set aside enough money to buy a new one, just in case, i plan to root my Net10 LG-L45C and get rid of that little bit of spyware, at least.

jkameleon
jkameleon

http://www.unmarkedvan.com/?p=192 "If you accept the agreement, you expressly authorize and consent to us accessing or disclosing information about you, including the content of your communications on a good faith belief that such access or disclosure is necessary to protect the personal safety of Microsoft employees, customers, or the public."

IT Pixie
IT Pixie

We wanted the convenience of being connected everywhere, being able to access our and others stuff anywhere, and getting in touch with people across the globe at the comfort of our homes/offices. We put our information out there on the internet, be it for shopping online, playing online games or using social network; once that info is out there, it's there for [i]someone[/i] to see... The minute we go online, there goes our privacy. It's part of the deal for having the convenience of being online. Relying on shiny new devices is only a small part of it -- after all, if the devices didn't connect to anywhere, it wouldn't have mattered what tracking software/hardware there is in them.

dcolbert
dcolbert

I guess the only answer is to become one of the foxes. ;)

tkejlboom
tkejlboom

Google's devices are the only ones that never had it all, apparently regardless of the carrier.

nwallette
nwallette

There's nothing magic about paper, nor electronics. You absolutely have the right to be upset about invasions of privacy. It is not the price of using modern technology, it's the price of complacency. Compare the Internet to a road. You're connected to the highway system if you have a paved driveway, but that doesn't grant others the right to camp outside your window and stare into your house. No one would accept that. Companies will push to whatever extent people will allow. Just don't allow it.

tkejlboom
tkejlboom

Just a note, the government probably knows where you live, and how much you make. How confident are you that they're protecting your data? Land line numbers are publicly listed, as are addresses often by local utilities. Most of the privacy you enjoy, in the form of marketers not calling you or filling your mail with spam, is due to the technology which has simplified your life. All the rest is society sucking in all the ways they have been before.

nwallette
nwallette

AnyDVD HD. Blu-ray works REALLY well when you make MKVs out of the main feature and store it on a NAS. And then convert it to MP4 for an iPad / iPhone, and even use the little HDMI dongle to connect it to your hotel TV while you're traveling. Or so I've heard. If you care to learn, you do have the tools to get your freedom back, at least a little.

dcolbert
dcolbert

Listen... in the 60s the auto-makers had gone off the deep end in their disregard for the well being of their consumers, and the consumers were almost absolutely powerless to change anything. The Big 3 had all the politicians in their pocket, and it was all status-quo in DC and in Detroit. Imagine in such a world, you and I are competing for resources, like jobs. You make a stand against unsafe, poorly engineered cars like the Covair and the Pinto. I take my chances and buy myself a new Dodge Dart. My mobility makes me better able to compete for jobs. You can't vote with your wallet. There are two things working against you - your peers are all complacent and/or ignorant. They think American cars are fine. They're happy to get into a vehicle with no crumple zone and a bare metal dash and *maybe* a lap-belt. So they're not agitating for change. They're content with the unsafe cars that you know are death-traps. And as long as they're going along with the program, you can't really make a change, or you're going to be unable to function and compete with them in society. So you *know* what the problem is, but you're powerless to really do anything about it. You've got to just try to find the least dangerous and most reliable car you can afford and wait for Ralph Nadar to come along, shake things up, and get some enough people upset that government regulation comes along and "kills Detroit's ability to compete". Right? Everything was fine when you were letting us sell cars with criminally unsafe suspensions and frames. Anyhow, we're in a similar situation today, especially with smart-phones. We're talking about devices that you kind of *need* to be competitive in the workplace, in society in general. If you don't have a smart-phone, you're at a basic disadvantage against EVERYONE else in a highly connected society. It isn't JUST gadget envy and keeping up with the Jonses... there is also an element of "this is required to be on equal footing with your peers in society. Without it, you're at a competitive disadvantage". In the meantime, most smart-phone and other mobile device users are simply ignorant and or complacent about the abuses that these devices are carrying out against them. It is the personal privacy equivalent of a Corvair - Unsafe at Any Speed. Personal privacy today is at the same place in respecting consumers as automotive safety was prior to Ralph Nadar's book being released in 1975. 80% of the people don't care, and the 20% of people who understand and want to change things really can't. And at the end of it, unless these companies like Apple and HTC and Sony will change their stripes willingly, we have government regulation as the solution. I can't wait for Al Franken and Orrin Hatch to start weighing in on Digital Device Privacy Acts. That'll probably work out splendid.

dcolbert
dcolbert

That for the technically adept who are willing to spit in the face of the DMCA - that there are many wonders that can be achieved with a suite of products from SlySoft and other vendors. But, I'm not very technically adept - and besides, I am a law-abiding person who would never disregard a rule or regulation - in particular in the current political and legal climate of suing 12 year old girls and their grandmothers - and seizing foreign registered domain names over claims of IP infringement.

tkejlboom
tkejlboom

Capital spending is down. Prices are up! Profits are record high! These rates are NOT justified by infrastructure costs!

tkejlboom
tkejlboom

The problem, as ever, isn't that the 80% don't know better. It's that they don't care. Turns out people all over the world were sounding the alarm on the financial crisis for a decade, but no one cared. I've gone over line by line with people showing them how the carriers screw them. Then they get an iphone anyway. People new cars were unsafe. At one point Ford had a concept car with modern safety belts and a padded dash. The problem is that most people are sheep and won't change course until the wolf is plain before them. The government always fails to matter. Just as trucks and SUVs continue to be subject to less rigorous safety checks than cars... Just as they failed to abolish AT&T as a national carrier... Just as they failed to pass any meaningful financial reform.

nwallette
nwallette

That's the crux. Honestly, I don't have the definitive solution. Articles like this go a long way -- I had never heard of Carrier IQ until this week. There are plenty of people out there that do, or would, care if they knew about the problem. These days, everyone wants your information. Most of the time, I don't mind providing a little for the sake of demographics. If I want it free (or cheap), I understand someone has to pay the bills, and that means advertisements. Google's use of interests to target ads doesn't bother me either. The ads will be there one way or another, might as well be relevant to my interests. As long as that information is obtained and used ethically, no problem. The cell-cos are going overboard, though. Cramming software down your throats and taking advantage of the intimate nature of one's modern-day PDA is just playing dirty. Many folks complain that the plans are expensive, but I understand why -- infrastructure is NOT cheap, especially when the technology changes so often. Our willingness to trade significant sums of money in exchange for ubiquitous connectivity ought to encourage a symbiotic relationship. But there is no relationship as things are right now. At least, it's dysfunctional. FWIW, American media content providers are the same way. At least in Europe, you can pick your own cable box. Anyway, some folks will chose ignorance. Others will be paranoid and never trust anyone. But the masses, I believe, are somewhere in between. Most are just too busy living their lives to know what's going on, so a little education goes a long way.

dcolbert
dcolbert

via any method has been ruled at points a violation of the DMCA act. http://www.slashgear.com/dmca-updated-jailbreaking-unlocking-and-fair-use-drm-bypassing-are-allowed-2695383/ Illustrates there is still an ongoing and evolving definition over what is "legal" and what is not legal in regards to fair-use copying that includes bypassing encryption. My point then is, that I'm not going to take a public stand where I admit that I might take part in an activity that is, at best legally murky. I may have an opinion on medical marijuana, too - but even if I lived in a Medical Marijuana State, I don't think I'd be trumpeting the fact that I'm smoking blunts to deal with my glaucoma.

tkejlboom
tkejlboom

First of all he's not doing anything illegal. He said nothing about illegal distribution. None of this is new. We went through this with beta, magnetic music tapes, CDs, MP3s, and DVDs. The only difference now is a disengaged spoiled oblivious baby boomer set, and a Gen Y that's completely stupid, overeducated, and generally worthless.

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