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Carrier IQ downplays 2010 patent request

Firm sought patent for tech it said could read content selection, location data and app activity on mobile devices

A Carrier IQ executive Monday downplayed the significance of the company's effort to patent a technology it said can help wireless carriers undertake "advertising audience segmentation analysis and content copyright analytics."

The company applied for a patent for the so-called Service Intelligence Module Program Product in March, 2010.

The application says that the technology can, among other things, combine and analyze "service intelligence modules related to games, financial transactions, and medical diagnostics."

The patent application asserts that the technology would let carriers "configure a processor to read content selection, read location data, read application activity, and determine presentation/deselection of advertising messages." It also claims that the product could be used to "group identifiers of mobile device users who have a higher probability of occupying a certain geographical area," as well as provide carriers with a "means for tracing copyright ownership of content displayed on the device."

In an interview yesterday, Carrier IQ marketing vice president Andrew Coward downplayed the claims in the patent application and emphatically contended that none of the company's current products offer the capabilities described. The Service Intelligence Module Program Product would offer much broader capabilities than Carrier IQ prodcts offer today, he said.

Coward said that while there are many different ways Carrier IQ technology can be used, its products today are focused solely on improving wireless network and handset performance.

"In the formative years of the company, we recognized there were multiple uses for our technology on the handset and sought to ensure that others would not be able to leverage what we do," Coward said. Thus the company filed the patent application last year, he added.

"We absolutely recognize the power of our technology to extend into additional areas. But [the company has] found that, as with all start-ups, it is essential to focus on what you do well, which in our case is delivering detailed analytics on why phones and networks don't always work to consumer's satisfaction," he said.

"Today, we are focused 100% on customer quality of experience for wireless devices and networks providing tools for customer care and network planning and optimization," Coward said.

In recent days, Carrier IQ has been at the center of a major privacy controversy prompted by Connecticut security researcher Trevor Eckhart's report that describes Carrier IQ's current software product as a hard to detect and even harder to remove data collector. The report said that the tool can be used for highly intrusive tracking of Android, BlackBerry and other smartphone users.

Major carriers Sprint and AT&T have admitted using the Carrier IQ software, but insist that the technology can only be used to help wireless carriers diagnose operational problems on wireless networks and devices.

Some security researchers have backed the positions of Carrier IQ and the carriers, concluding that the software is more benign than critics had assumed in the immediate aftermath of Eckhart's report.

For instance, Dan Rosenberg a secrity consultant at Virtual Security Research, posted the results of his analysis of a Carrier IQ installation on Samsung's Epic 4G Touch. Rosenberg said his analysis showed that Carrier IQ was not configured to record SMS text bodies or web page and email content, and couldn't configured to do so.

Coward categorically said that Carrier IQ cannot be used for keystroke logging or to view a user's mobile content.

Concerns related to the use of its software show hardly any signs of abating despite the findings of selected researchers and the claims of the company.

At least three lawsuits have been filed alleging that major carriers such as AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile as well as handset makers such as HTC, Samsung, Motorla and Apple violated various U.S. statutes, such as the Federal Wiretap Act, the Stored Electronic Communications Act, and the Federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, by using Carrier IQ's software.

Lawmakers in the U.S and Europe have also expressed concern over the data collection enabled by Carrier IQ's technology and whether the data is collected surreptitiously.

On Friday, Rep. Edward Markey, (D-Mass.), requested that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission investigate the privacy concerns surrounding the Carrier IQ software.

The furor created by Eckhart's disclosure has prompted Carrier IQ to rethink how it will handle future technologies, Coward said.

"While we might wish to extend our business and analytics into new areas in the future, we have just received an abject lesson in ensuring that consumers fully understand the technology in their hands," Coward said.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan , or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com .

Read more about privacy in Computerworld's Privacy Topic Center.


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