The brouhaha over Carrier IQ is unfair because their embedded software allows manufacturers to build better devices and operators to improve quality of service.
Do you like it when your smartphone drops a call when you drive in a certain area time and time again?
Do you like it when you try to browse the web and find it takes so long for the page to load that you end up doing something else?
Do you want fast devices and high quality of service (QOS) when you use your mobile device?
At the same time, I’m sure you want your devices to be secure and your privacy to be maintained.
I believe in security and privacy as much or more than most, but I also realize that there are things that a mobile operator must know in order to bill the customer properly and improve the quality of the network. And, there are things that the device manufacturer must know to help fix problems and build better, more enjoyable devices in the future.
For example, if the operator didn’t keep track of the number you’re calling and the length of the call, then the operator couldn’t figure out the minutes you are consuming against your plan and provide a detailed bill each month showing you exactly what you did and how much you were supposed to pay. Likewise, if the operator didn’t log when there was a dropped call and where it happened, they wouldn’t be able to fix it.
Yes, there is some monitoring that we have to allow in order for the operator to provide the best network services possible. The real issue regarding privacy here is to ensure that no one else can get access to your personal information without either your approval or from a court order. Everyone by now knows that most of your personal information and behavior can be discovered under court order, e.g. cell phone records, time stamp from use of tollways, photo when using an ATM and going through security at the airport.
What we don’t expect is that this information is made public or is obtained by others for inappropriate use, e.g. identity fraud or marketing purposes.
Carrier IQ and other similar firms don’t collect information and then use it against anyone. Their embedded software monitors performance of the handset and behavior of the network and then forwards that informationsummary information without passing on the user’s identity. The software doesn’t pass on the content of the failed message or dropped calls. It just passes on the network and handset diagnostics around the dropped call or failed message. The information is placed into an encrypted database from which analysis and inquiry can be made. And, none of this information is ever sold to third parties.
Operators can look at where dropped calls are happening and the time of day and then install additional equipment to prevent or at least lower the incidence of those dropped calls. I’ve seen ‘low signal strength’ on my handset in some locations. And, then later, I all of a sudden notice that ‘high signal strength’ at that same location when improvements are made in the network.
Manufacturers are able to analyze how the devices are performing, e.g. what applications are more prevalent and how much of the different resources in the phone are being used. They can then improve power management and determine how to improve the handset so the user experience is better.
So, the next time you see a segment on Brian Williams Nightly News or read a piece stating that performance and behavior of smartphones is being monitored, you should think, “Of course they are monitoring the performance and behavior in my smartphone! How else are they going to fix it when it doesn’t work?” Here’s a good example:
“Hi, I’m Mary Smith working in the customer service department of AT&T Mobilityservice. How can I help you today?”
“I’m Bill Parsons. Every day when I drive through the intersection of I-75 and I-285 in Atlanta during rush hour and I’m on my iPhone, I’m experiencing a dropped call over half the time. Can’t you guys fix that so it won’t happen?”
“Actually, Mr. Parsons, because we have some very sophisticated software that’s monitoring dropped calls, I’ve just been told that we’re adding extra cell tower resources at that intersection that are scheduled to be installed in the next two weeks, so you should see the number of dropped calls going way down.”
“Wow, that’s amazing that you know where the dropped calls are happening. Thanks for fixing it.”
Wireless operators and handset manufacturers don’t want or need to gather information about what you’re doing unless there is either a court order or terrorist threat. They simply want to build great smartphones and offer the best network quality of service possible.
The next time you see that the FBI is able to stop someone from doing something to interrupt the safety and lives of U. S. citizens or in drug trafficking, you’ll likely be thrilled that their devices have monitoring software and the ability for the network operator to track phones when under a court order or in the interests of national security. At the same time, we have to make sure that such monitoring is kept confidential for the 99.9% of people like you and me who simply want to enjoy the benefits of owning and using a mobile device.
J. Gerry Purdy, Ph.D.
Mobile & Wireless