The Carrier IQ Saga

The story so far: security researcher Trevor Eckhart exposed some very disturbing information about the "Carrier IQ" application here. This set off a small firestorm, which quickly got much bigger when Carrier IQ responded by attempting to bully and threaten him into silence. This did not go over well. After he refused to back down, they retracted the threats and apologized.

Eckhart followed up by posting part two of his research, demonstrating some of his findings on video. Considerable discussion of that demonstration ensued, for example here and here and here. Some critics of Eckhart's research have opined that it's overblown or not rigorous enough. But further analysis and commentary suggests that the problem could well be worse than we currently know. Stephen Wicker of Cornell University has explored some of the implications, and his comments seem especially apropos given that Carrier IQ has publicly admitted holding a treasure trove of data. Dan Rosenberg has done further in-depth research on the detailed workings of Carrier IQ, leading to rather a lot of discussion about Carrier IQ's capabilities -- there's some disagreement among researchers over what Carrier IQ is doing versus what it could be doing, e.g.: Is Carrier IQ's Data-Logging Phone Software Helpful or a Hacker's Goldmine?

Meanwhile, the scandal grew, questions were raised about whether it violated federal wiretap laws, a least one US Senator noticed, and Carrier IQ issued an inept press release. Phone vendors and carriers have been begun backing away from Carrier IQ as quickly as possible; there were denials from Verizon and Apple . T-Mobile has posted internal and external quick guides about Carrier IQ. Some of the denials were more credible than others. There has been some skepticism about Carrier IQ's statements, given their own marketing claims and the non-answers to some questions. There's also been discussion about the claims made in Carrier IQ's patent.

Then the lawsuits started, see Hagens Berman and Sianna & Straite and 8 companies hit with lawsuit for some details on three of them.

Attempts to figure out which phones are infected with Carrier IQ are ongoing. For example, the Google Nexus Android phones and original Xoom tablet seem to not be infected, nor do phones used on UK-based mobile networks, but traces of are present in some versions of iOS, although their function isn't entirely clear. A preliminary/beta application that tries to detect it is now available. Methods for removing it have been discussed.

Meanhile, A Freedom of Information Act request's response has indicated (per the FBI) that Carrier IQ files have been used for "law enforcement purposes", but Carrier IQ has denied this. And there seems to be a growing realization that all of this has somehow become standard practice; as Dennis Fisher astutely observes, With Mobile Devices, Users Are the Product, Not the Buyer.

Those are the details; now what about the implications?

Debate continues about whether Carrier's IQ is a rootkit and/or spyware. Some have observed that if it's a rootkit, it's a rather poorly-concealed one. But it's been made unkillable, and it harvests keystrokes -- two properties most often associated with malicious software. And there's no question that Carrier IQ really did attempt to suppress Eckhart's publication of his findings.

But even if we grant, for the purpose of argument, that it's not a rootkit and not spyware, it still has an impact on the aggregate system security of the phone: it provides a good deal of pre-existing functionality that any attacker can leverage. In other words, intruding malware doesn't need to implement the vast array of functions that Carrier IQ already has; it just has to activate and tap into them.

Which brings me to a set of questions that probably should have been publicly debated and answered before software like this was installed on an estimated 150 million phones. I'm not talking about the questions that involve the details of Carrier IQ -- because I think we'll get answers to those from researchers and from legal proceedings. I'm talking about larger questions that apply to all phones -- indeed, to all mobile devices -- such as:

  • What kind of debugging or performance-monitoring software should be included?
  • Who should be responsible for that software's installation? Its maintenance?
  • Should the source code for that software be published so that we can all see exactly what it does?
  • Should device owners be allowed to turn it off/deinstall it -- or, should they be asked for permission to install it/turn it on?
  • Will carriers or manufacturers pay the bandwidth charges for users whose devices transmit this data?
  • Should carriers or manufacturers pay phone owners for access to the device owners' data?
  • Where's the dividing line between performance-measuring data that can be used to assess and improve services, and personal data? Is there such a dividing line?
  • Will data transmission be encrypted? How?
  • Will data be anonymized or stripped or otherwise made less personally-identifiable? Will this be done before or after transmission or both? Will this process be full-documented and available for public review?
  • What data will be sent -- and will device owners be able to exert some fine-grained control over what and when?
  • Who is is responsible for the security of the data gathered?
  • Who will have access to that data?
  • When will that data be destroyed?
  • Who will be accountable if/when security on the data repository is breached?
  • What are the privacy implications of such a large collection of diverse data?
  • Will it be available to law enforcement agencies? (Actually, I think I can answer that one: "yes". I think it's a given that any such collection of data will be targeted for acquisition by every law enforcement agency in every country. Some of them are bound to get it. See "FBI", above, for a case in point.)

Lots of questions, I know. Perhaps I could summarize that list by asking these three instead: (1) Who owns your mobile device? (2) Who owns the software installed on your mobile device? and (3) Who owns your data?