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Carrier IQ VP: App on millions of phones not a privacy risk

Like tiny fish through a net, key taps dropped from memory

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More than 48 hours after a software developer posted evidence Carrier IQ monitored the key taps on more than 141 million smartphones, a company official has come forward to rebut the disturbing allegations. And he's provided enough technical detail to convince The Register the diagnostics software doesn't represent a privacy threat to handset owners.

Yes, Carrier IQ is a vast digital fishing net that sees geographic locations and the contents of text messages and search queries swimming inside the phones the software monitors, the company's VP of marketing, Andrew Coward, said in an extensive interview. But except in rare circumstances, that data is dumped out of a phone's internal memory almost as quickly as it goes in. Only in cases of a phone crash or a dropped call is information transferred to servers under the control of the cellular carrier so engineers can troubleshoot bottlenecks and other glitches on their networks.

“To answer your point, we're on a fishing boat out at sea and we're catching fish that are too small and they go back in,” Coward explained. “And they go back in for two reasons: One, the holes in the net don't catch small fish, i.e. the filtering, and/or the fish is the wrong type and it gets thrown out of the boat, hopefully while it's still alive.”

The interview came as Carrier IQ faced four lawsuits and a request by a US lawmaker for an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission. US Senator Al Franken has already demanded the Mountain View, California-based company answer a battery of questions, including whether it violates federal wiretap statutes.

The reason the SMS contents and key taps are monitored at all is so they can be used to invoke Carrier IQ programming interfaces, he continued. Messages or key sequences that contain proprietary tags can be used to manually upload diagnostic information. Those that don't contain the special formatting (such as key taps shown in the developer's demo) dissolve into the ether as soon as they come in.

“The content of the SMS is never stored and never transmitted,” Coward said.

His version of the software has been confirmed by Dan Rosenberg, an Android security researcher who has reverse engineered Carrier IQ and examined the underlying machine language. He said he took the undertaking after viewing a video demonstration posted on Monday that showed the software echoing the precise key taps developer Trevor Eckhart typed into his HTC EVO handset.

“What the video is depicting is the application printing out what are known as bugging logs,” he said. “It's a way that applications keep a temporary record of the things they were doing so if anything were to break, a developer could go and read that record and figure out what went wrong. That's very different from the application actually recording that information and sending it off to the carrier.”

What follows are highlights from The Register's interview with Coward:

Mobile application security vulnerability report

Next page: Carrier IQ speaks

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