Carrier IQ: Blame operators, not us

Carrier IQ has come out fighting amid the ongoing controversy around alleged cellphone tracking and covert customer data collection, claiming information gathered from users amounts to little more than crash logs. While security researchers originally claimed Carrier IQ was gathering text messages as well as location data, in fact "the content of the SMS is never stored and never transmitted" company marketing VP Andrew Coward told the Register. Instead, it's claimed only certain keypresses are tracked to spot errors in a carrier's network. Responsibility for what data is collected and stored rather than passing straight through Carrier IQ's systems – and indeed loading the Carrier IQ software onto the phone you might be using – lies with your operator.

"What the video is depicting is the application printing out what are known as bugging logs. It's a way that applications keep a temporary record of the things they were doing so if anything were to break, a developer could go and read that record and figure out what went wrong. That's very different from the application actually recording that information and sending it off to the carrier" Andrew Coward, VP of marketing, Carrier IQ

As Carrier IQ paints it, its data nets only catch certain preconfigured error codes in data from a cellphone, depending on the extent of the information its carrier customer wants to collect. That could be merely a list of how many SMS messages fail – with no record of the actual text in those messages – or a daily list of what applications are being used. Much of the discarding process happens on the phone itself, Coward says, before it ever reaches Carrier IQ's servers. "Our mantra has always been to throw away as much information as early as possible" he claims, "throw away what you don't need on the handset first."

"The content of SMS messages are never logged. There are two things that happen when SMS messages are received. One is, obviously, we count them, the ones that succeed, the ones that fail. We do also record the telephone numbers the SMSs are from and to. So for example, if you send and SMS to me and it fails, you want to be able to work out did it not leave your phone, was it a communication problem with the tower, did it somehow not get to me in the last mile. This is a two-way conversation. You need the know both ends of the chain to understand. The content of the SMS is never stored and never transmitted" Andrew Coward, Carrier IQ

Operators themselves have in many cases jumped to distance themselves from Carrier IQ and any suggestion of data collection, with Verizon, Rogers, Vodafone UK, O2 UK and others all joining manufacturers and platform creators including RIM, GoogleMicrosoft, Nokia and others in denying any involvement. On the flipside, Apple has said it previously loaded Carrier IQ tech - but will strip out what little remains in the near future – while Samsung and HTC are now the subject of a wiretapping suit. At least one detection app for Android has been spawned.

Ironically, while Carrier IQ is now being put under the microscope by Senator Al Franken and, potentially, the FTC, the information it passes to networks themselves is probably less than they already know.  "The other thing to think about is that while you potentially jump through all these hoops, the operators themselves are going to have all this information one way or another" Carrier IQ's Andrew Coward points out, referring to the fact that text messages, calls and other information already passes through the network operators' systems. Whether that will placate angry users and lawmakers remains to be seen.