Carrier IQ Phone Software Stirs Fears About Tracking

Little-known software installed on millions of smartphones is raising fresh questions about what data are being collected from mobile devices, where it's going and what it is being used for.

Security researchers have published blog posts and videos that appear to show software -- from a company called Carrier IQ Inc. -- collecting information on an HTC Corp. smartphone, running Google Inc.'s Android operating system. The software, which security researchers said was not transparently visible to consumers, is shown tracking actions such as when buttons are pressed and collecting personal data such as the content of text messages.

Such disclosures, which began making waves a couple weeks ago, prompted concerns from users and regulators alike, who began asking how many devices used the software and what it did. HTC said Thursday it is not a customer, but that some carriers require the software to be used. Apple Inc., meanwhile, said it was already phasing out use of the software. Nokia Corp. said it has not used it.

A spokesman for Google said the search giant does not have an affiliation with Carrier IQ, adding that it does not control how mobile carriers or handset makers might customize Android. Google distributes the software free and allows device makers to change its code to add or remove features.

Some wireless carriers, including Sprint Nextel Corp., AT&T Inc. and T-Mobile USA, ask some of their phone manufacturers to put Carrier IQ on their devices. Each said they use the technology to monitor their networks and improve service.

The dust-up is the latest in a string of privacy controversies that have concerned consumers and lawmakers. Privacy researchers recently have uncovered information about smartphones tracking user's location history and apps that access and transmit user's personally identifying information.

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) has asked the company to answer questions about what data it collects, where that information is sent and how it is handled, among other things.

Carrier IQ said in a statement late Thursday that its software does not record, store or transmit the contents of text messages, emails, photographs, audio or video. Instead, it said it tracks whether text messages are sent accurately, for example, and figures out which applications drain a handset's battery. The company maintained that the software it makes is used to monitor and improve device and network performance, not to collect personal information.

The company earlier sent a letter to one security researcher, Trevor Eckhart, demanding he remove any reference to Carrier IQ in his published research, or face court proceedings and fines.

Carrier IQ later withdrew its demand after the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital rights advocacy group, backed Eckhart's research.

A former executive of Carrier IQ described the company's technology as a "mobile intelligence service" being used on roughly 150 million devices world-wide. He also said that wireless companies in particular use the product to help analyze dropped calls, for example, or understand how much data a user downloads to their phone.

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