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Sen. Al Franken 'demands' answers on Carrier IQ's alleged spyware

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) is demanding that Carrier IQ explain whether its smartphone application is spying on users.

The text of the letter was revealed in a press release from the office of Franken, who is chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law. The release is headlined: "Sen. Franken Demands Answers from Company Accused of Secretly Logging Location and Private Information of Millions of Smartphone Users."

DIRTY DOZEN: Security-vulnerable smartphones ID'd

Franken's letter was addressed to Carrier IQ CEO Larry Lenhart, who joined the company just three months ago. Franken asked for answers to 11 questions by Dec. 14.

The company's software is installed on smartphones, where it collects a range of data about the phone's operation on the network and the user experience. That data is sent to a set of server applications for processing and analysis, and the results are used by carriers to improve service.

Among carriers, AT&T and Sprint have confirmed they use the Carrier IQ software. Handset makers HTC and Samsung say the client code is included in their handsets, at the insistence of carrier customers. Others, including Verizon Wireless, Research in Motion and Nokia say they don't use Carrier IQ.

Exactly what data is collected and sent is in dispute. [See "Mobile privacy debate reignites over hidden smartphone app"]

In his press release, Franken declared, "Consumers need to know that their safety and privacy are being protected by the companies they trust with their sensitive information. The revelation that the locations and other sensitive data of millions of Americans are being secretly recorded and possibly transmitted is deeply troubling. This news underscores the need for Congress to act swiftly to protect the location information and private, sensitive information of consumers. But right now, Carrier IQ has a lot of questions to answer."

The "revelation" to which Franken refers is a pair of recent blogposts and a YouTube video by a Connecticut systems administrator, Trevor Eckhart. He, and an array of bloggers, hackers and pundits who have accepted his analysis, allege that Carrier IQ can, and is, collecting a range of detailed personal information, including the text of SMS messages, and even individual keypad and keyboard touches.

But others are saying Eckhart actually has not yet shown that Carrier IQ is collecting this information on the phone, or transmitting it. "At no point does he enter a debugger and look inside the Carrier IQ application, and at no point does he run a network sniffer and look at what data is being transmitted to Carrier IQ," says John Graham-Cumming, programmer, author, and VP of engineering at software vendor Causata, in a post on his personal blog. "And I don't understand why. It would be a huge story if millions of smartphones worldwide were secretly sending the content of text messages to a US-based company. But that's not the story here because the 'security researcher' does not appear to have tried to find out."

Carrier IQ initially had a different response to Eckhart's posts: It slapped him with a cease-and-desist letter. A few days later, however, the company withdrew the letter and apologized after he turned for help to the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF). The company has consistently said that its software is "not recording keystrokes or providing tracking tools," most recently in a "media alert" on its website.

Yet the company has so far declined all requests, including one from Network World, to explain in detail what data the application captures and how the application works. It apparently plans to do so in an upcoming meeting with representatives of the EFF.

In his letter to Lenhart, Franken said he was "very concerned" by reports that the Carrier IQ software "is logging and may be transmitting extraordinarily sensitive information from consumers' phones."

"These actions may violate federal privacy laws, including the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act," Franken warned Lenhart. "This is potentially a very serious matter."

Among the questions asked by Franken are:

- Does Carrier IQ software log users' location? - What other data does Carrier IQ software log? - Is that data transmitted to Carrier IQ? Is it transmitted to smartphone manufacturers, operating system providers or carriers? Is it transmitted to any other third parties? - Will Carrier IQ allow users to stop any logging and transmission of this data? - How does Carrier IQ protect this data against hackers and other security threats?

The full text of Franken's letter follows:

Dear Mr. Lenhart,

I am very concerned by recent reports that your company's software -- pre-installed on smartphones used by millions of Americans -- is logging and may be transmitting extraordinarily sensitive information from consumers' phones, including:

• when they turn their phones on; • when they turn their phones off; • the phone numbers they dial; • the contents of text messages they receive; • the URLs of the websites they visit; • the contents of their online search queries -- even when those searches are encrypted; and • the location of the customer using the smartphone—even when the customer has expressly denied permission for an app that is currently running to access his or her location.

It appears that this software runs automatically every time you turn your phone on. It also appears that an average user would have no way to know that this software is running -- and that when that user finds out, he or she will have no reasonable means to remove or stop it.

These revelations are especially concerning in light of Carrier IQ's public assertions that it is "not recording keystrokes or providing tracking tools" (November 16), "[d]oes not record your keystrokes," and "[d]oes not inspect or report on the content of your communications, such as the content of emails and SMSs" (November 23).

I understand the need to provide usage and diagnostic information to carriers. I also understand that carriers can modify Carrier IQ's software. But it appears that Carrier IQ's software captures a broad swath of extremely sensitive information from users that would appear to have nothing to do with diagnostics -- including who they are calling, the contents of the texts they are receiving, the contents of their searches, and the websites they visit.

These actions may violate federal privacy laws, including the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. This is potentially a very serious matter.

I ask that you provide answers to the following questions by December 14, 2011.

(1) Does Carrier IQ software log users' location?  

(2) What other data does Carrier IQ software log? Does it log: a. The telephone numbers users dial? b. The telephone numbers of individuals calling a user? c. The contents of the text messages users receive? d. The contents of the text messages users send? e. The contents of the emails they receive? f. The contents of the emails users send? g. The URLs of the websites that users visit? h. The contents of users' online search queries? i. The names or contact information from users' address books? j. Any other keystroke data?

(3) What if any of this data is transmitted off of a users' phone? When? In what form?

(4) Is that data transmitted to Carrier IQ? Is it transmitted to smartphone manufacturers, operating system providers, or carriers? Is it transmitted to any other third parties?

(5) If Carrier IQ receives this data, does it subsequently share it with third parties? With whom does it share this data? What data is shared?

(6) Will Carrier IQ allow users to stop any logging and transmission of this data?

(7) How long does Carrier IQ store this data?

(8) Has Carrier IQ disclosed this data to federal or state law enforcement?

(9) How does Carrier IQ protect this data against hackers and other security threats?

(10) Does Carrier IQ believe that its actions comply with the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, including the federal wiretap statute (18 U.S.C. § 2511 et seq.), the pen register statute (18 USC § 3121 et seq.), and the Stored Communications Act (18 U.S.C. § 2701 et seq.)?

(11) Does Carrier IQ believe that its actions comply with the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (18 U.S.C. § 1030)? Why?

I appreciate your prompt attention to this matter.

Sincerely, AL FRANKEN Chairman, Subcommittee on Privacy |Technology and the Law

 

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World. Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnww Email: [email protected] Blog RSS feed: http://www.networkworld.com/community/blog/2989/feed

Read more about anti-malware in Network World's Anti-malware section.


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