Home It’s Carrier IQ’s World, We Just Live in It

It’s Carrier IQ’s World, We Just Live in It

Somewhere along the complex supply chain of the mobile world’s chips, antennas, touchscreens, operating systems and inter-linked celular networks traveling around the globe – someone has been caught capturing and transmitting more of your data than you’d probably like. There are probably any number of parties doing something similar but mobile usage data capture service Carrier IQ has been found to have code installed, with the phone companies’ blessing, on millions of phones without the knowledge of consumers.

We’re all awash in a sea of data, we have been for some time, but as we meet that data we learn that it is made of people. We’ve met the data tsunami and it is us. That’s bound to make a lot of people uncomfortable. If a future based on that data unfolds in the wrong way, it could end up a major hindrance to the quality of human life.

Identity data advocate Kaliya Hamlin warns of “participatory totalitarianism” – a future where freedom of choice and personal expression is squashed by a panopticon we build ourselves using our own technology. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. An alternative future can be built based on personal sovereignty and effective policies and standards. The choice is ours, but we need to look beyond the initial fear of being tracked. The Carrier IQ controversy is worth discussing far beyond the actions of this one company alone.

What is Carrier IQ? It’s software that delivers data about peoples’ cell phone use to the cellular network carriers. Dropped calls and call quality people can understand, when it comes down to app usage patterns and individual keystrokes, as it discovered last week the company is tracking and transmitting, that’s data many people feel very uncomfortable with.

Apple says it’s stopped using Carrier IQ, but millions of Android phones continue to use it. Senator Al Franken has started asking questions.

“Don’t Track Me, Bro!”

It’s easy to understand why all of this makes people uneasy. I was just thinking about how cool the apparently semi-functional Jawbone Go personal data bracelets were last week when I thought, “but I don’t need some futuristic Logan’s Run style tracking fashion object around my wrist everywhere I go!” Then I looked down at the hand holding my beloved iPhone.

The future is already here. Our phones pump geo-tagged transaction data into the network at a rate that’s 7,000 times the volume of all the blathering in the Twitter Firehose. Data is being understood, according to some leading analysts, as an economic input of equivalent importance to capital and labor. My phone lights up whenever I’m within 50 yards of a historically significant place off-line.

It’s awesome and it’s terrifying, both.

What’s Black, White and Read All Over?

If the future of data is built well, though, then the upside for all of us is huge. The controversy around Carrier IQ, runs the risk of throwing a very precious baby out with the bathwater we’re uneasily coming to understand. The ultimate question is not whether or not this data will be collected and used – the question is who will control that process? Will it be us, or will it be mysterious corporations we never knew existed?

It’s your phone, it’s your cloud tablet, it’s the invisible framework that keeps the internet accessible and fast – our activities in the networked digital realm are almost always inherently measured and transmitted as a matter of course in delivering the services we love.

But that doesn’t mean that all tracking is done right. “It’s astounding that a company thinks they can still get away with these always-connected devices,” says Scott Kveton (right), CEO of mobile push notification infrastructure and mobile analytics service Urban Airship. “You have to always do the right thing when it comes to your product and services; thinking you can dupe or work outside of the regular rules of engagement is just plain nuts. Do you really need to do key logging to get network performance information? C’mon!”

Kaliya “Identity Woman” Hamlin (left, CC Doc Searls), Founder Personal Data Ecosystem Consortium, puts it this way.

I think all of this is a huge opportunity for the personal data ecosystem. Because clearly there is value in this data…but you can’t get to it if you do it the way Carrier IQ appears to be getting it.

For one thing, it is totally out of alignement with European privacy law. In Europe they have purpose binding so you can collect data for ‘a purpose’ and you have to tell the user what it is and then keep the purpose with the data. It is illegal to store data with without the purpose binding.

The point is though, the data has value. It could be accessed ethically in new market places, oriented around people’s control and management – not just this ‘opt-in’ to us stalking you. Put it in your personal data locker/store/vault/bank and use it as you see fit. Where the user can choose wehre they store it who can help them get value from it and how they are protected from others seeing and poking at it or manipulating and using it for things the user doesn’t want.

This is also where accountability frameworks will start to come in – because right now there are really none asserted by people or anyone – but it is reasonable for a carrier to have data on where calls are dropping. So can you have ‘frameworks’ where that kind of data is available but not the Personally Identifiable Information and tracking bits…and can we audit this?

We want these systems and networks to get better…but ‘trust us’ isn’t really going to work.

Messy, Secret, Private Freedom

Beyond the value of improved network performances and application features, Hamlin also emphasizes the need for people to control their own data and share it selectively in order for us to have the freedom to express different parts of ourselves in different contexts. If our whole lives are thrown into one big data bucket being peered into by robots from all over, that’s going to constrict our freedom of movement and action.

Hamlin says that companies in this space are identifying your email, street adress, real name and from that are able to “look you up in the databases in the cloud that are tracking everyone and know all about you…without 1) having to ask you 2) respecting your different contexts you may not want linked 3) then they decide they know things about you that are ‘inferred’ from all that data…(the My TiVo thinks I’m gay problem writ large) and 4) has no sense of decency or relationship that is ‘human’.”

That all makes sense to me. I know I want the freedom to make decisions without robots lumping all the decisions I’ve ever made into one giant bucket without my permission. I’ll happily share a lot of my data with people I trust and who deliver value to me. But it’s not really Carrier IQ’s world I live in, this is my life.

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The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

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