Carrier IQ Collects Everything on Android Phones [Update]

[Update: Nokia issued a statement to The Mac Observer denying that it uses CarrierIQ in any of its products. That statement: “Nokia does not put CarrierIQ on any products. In fact, CarrierIQ does not ship software for any Nokia models (running on Symbian or otherwise).” Research In Motion has similarly denied the use of CarrierIQ. The story has been updated to reflect this. - Editor]

A piece of software called Carrier IQ has apparently been installed on more than 141 million phones from Samsung, HTC. While the same is true of a lot of software, CarrierIQ is loaded without the permission of users, always runs, doesn’t show up in the list of running apps on those devices, and—this is the zinger—logs everything that those users do on their devices, including the contents of text messages, searches, and even phone numbers dialed.

Your HTC Smartphone is Watching You

Your HTC Smartphone is Watching You

Carrier IQ is a third party company that offers metric information to carriers and handset makers. In other words, this is not a part of Android OS, or even BlackBerry OS, but is a third party application installed on these devices by carriers and/or handset makers.

A young man named Trevor Eckhart first exposed Carrier IQ earlier in November, and he was promptly sued by the company. The Electronic Freedom Foundation came to his aid, however, and the suit was dropped.

One of his accusations is that the software logs every button push and keystroke users make on their devices, an accusation that Carrier IQ denied. In a statement released on November 16th, the company said:

While we look at many aspects of a device’s performance, we are counting and summarizing performance, not recording keystrokes or providing tracking tools. The metrics and tools we derive are not designed to deliver such information, nor do we have any intention of developing such tools.

On November 28th, Mr. Eckhart posted a follow-up video (below) that shows quite clearly that this information is being collected, though there’s no proof that all of that data is then shipped to Carrier IQ’s servers. On the other hand, there’s no proof that it isn’t, and the entire point of the application is to collect and send data to those servers, so it’s not a great stretch to believe that every text, every search, ever button, and any and every other tap you make on your Samsung and HTC Android devices is being logged and sent to Carrier IQ and then shared with whichever company paid to have the app there in the first place.

Trevor Eckhart’s Carrier IQ Video

As you can see in the video, Carrier IQ’s claim that the company is not, “recording keystrokes or providing tracking tools” is completely false.

So far this software has not been found on any Windows Phone 7 devices, and it hasn’t been found on every Android device.

Another place it isn’t being found is on the iPhone. While Android lovers often chafe at Apple’s walled garden, the reality is that this is one aspect of smartphone ownership that iPhone users don’t have to worry about. Apple doesn’t allow carriers to install their own software onto iPhones, and Apple is its own hardware maker.

Which is why a site like ExtremeTech was led to say in its own coverage of Carrier IQ:

Apple products are another possibility. Normally we’d shy away from suggesting that Android users consider jumping ship, given that many Android users cite Apple’s closed software model as a reason for avoiding their products. In this case, however, the Android handset manufacturers have committed a colossal breach of trust, to the point of undermining the very openness that supposedly underpins Android in the first place. It is, at least, an option.

The backlash against Carrier IQ is, so far, significant, at least in geek circles. Forbes went so far as to report that this software might represent a violation of federal anti-wiretapping laws. Considering the fervor that developed around the much-less invasive location data practices of Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android systems elicited from the U.S. Senate earlier this year, the chances of similar hearings on this software are all but a foregone conclusion.

It would be easy for iPhone (and possibly Windows Phone) users to gloat and assume that this will result in the collapse of the Android empire, but we’d like to remind our readers that Carrier IQ isn’t a part of Android, it’s a consequence of the open nature of the operating system.

If there is enough of a backlash over its use, it’s Carrier IQ itself that will face the biggest pushback, not the platform. While device owners could (and should) be given control over its presence and/or use on these smartphones, we don’t see many Android users pitching their devices and buying iPhones over this.