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...

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