Don’t Blame The IQ, Blame The Carrier

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You couldn’t swing a cat this week without hitting a story about Carrier IQ, which (if you have somehow avoided this information) is a bit of software installed on millions of phones that has access to a huge amount of user data. As developers hinted for months and eventually proved on camera, the software is aware of SMS content, secure web traffic, contacts, key presses, and more.

Naturally there has been an outcry. Who are these people? What phones is the software on? How do you remove it? What can’t it do?

The surprising thing is that the ire has been directed at Carrier IQ themselves. Why? If someone runs you over in their car, you don’t write a stern letter to Ford. Carrier IQ made and sold an invasive piece of software, certainly. But they didn’t install it on your phone. Sprint did.

No doubt that part of the problem is simply yet to be addressed, but I have to say I genuinely sympathize with Carrier IQ, a company that sells a legitimate and potentially useful product, and is now facing the rage of the entire internet, and what’s worse, Al Franken.

Who wrote the contracts the users signed? The carriers. Who handled the phones? The carriers. Who added bloatware and special services and skins and branding to the OS? The carriers, the carriers, the carriers. And who called Carrier IQ in the first place and said “Hi, we’d like a surreptitious method of peeking at certain user habits”? That’s right, the carriers.

Who should have informed their customers of this tracking software and its capabilities, regardless of what information they intended to collect, or what was turned on or off by default? The carriers. Who would own the information scraped from the millions of phones being monitored? The carriers. And who should be the object of the internet’s rage right now? You’re damn right it’s the carriers.

What makes the whole thing even worse is that it wasn’t just some marketing deal Sprint had where they would collect stats from, say, Samsung phones running Android. T-Mobile and AT&T have used the software as well, and it’s not much of a leap of faith to suggest that Verizon and smaller carriers have something similar in place. Hell, Apple had a (mostly harmless) version of it, though understandably RIM was careful to note it avoided the software entirely.

If it was a misguided scheme by an isolated individual company, that would make it stupid. But it’s not — it’s an industry-wide collaboration that shows how incredibly little the carriers value their customers’ needs and privacy. If it was as integral to maintaining quality service as they seem to think it is, you’d think at least one of them might have mentioned it sometime in the last couple years. Do you remember anything like that?

There’s not a lot we can do, but if Senator Franken and the FTC and others can roll this ball of deceit uphill (as they indeed are attempting), they might be able to force carriers into having some basic standards for privacy and disclosure. It’ll take time, but the fact is that the damage is already done and these jokers have been caught in the act. Carrier IQ isn’t blameless, of course, and their handling of the situation has been bad, but they’re just the dealer. Sprint and the rest are the ones behind the wheel.

Are you mad? You should be. Go tell them so.