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The perception of perfidy

“Carrier IQ,” reads the company’s website, “is the leading provider of mobile intelligence solutions to the telecommunications industry.” As the only “embedded analytics company to support millions of devices simultaneously,” Carrier IQ asserts loftily that it enables device manufacturers and mobile service carriers to “provide the best possible experience to users.”

That “best possible experience” has countless wireless consumers and smartphone owners in an uproar. Setting aside for a moment the absurdity of Al Franken pretending to be a senator, or presiding over any inquiry into any corporate entity’s ethics (Mr. Franken brazenly thieved his way into the Senate, after all), the widespread use of Carrier IQ’s analytical software on millions of wireless phones has prompted the latest bout of fear and loathing among consumers eager to protect their private data.

The Washington Post‘s Sari Horwitz reported last week that federal investigators were looking into whether consumers have been properly informed of the software’s presence and application on their mobile devices. Company executives met with the Federal Trade Commission and officials from the FCC. The FTC inquiry was prompted by Rep. Edward J. Markey, a Democrat who co-chairs something called the “Bi-Partisan Congressional Privacy Caucus.”

The flap over Carrier IQ has been exacerbated (if not generated) by “security researcher” Trevor Eckhart, whose YouTube videos on the topic have demonstrated, according to Rachelle Dragani, that “Carrier IQ software could be used to obtain highly personal information from mobile phones.” The problem is not specific to any one carrier. On his YouTube channel, Eckhart writes, “Look at how many devices have Carrier IQ hidden.” Different companies have responded to varying degrees of contrition, perhaps rightly terrified of the consumer backlash and the effect it could have on their sales.

Carriers AT&T, Sprint, Samsung, and HTC have all responded to Franken’s demands for an explanation of their use of the software. Attempts to mollify customers have followed apace. Executives at RIM, makers of the Blackberry, have issued instructions for how to remove Carrier IQ from their devices. (The company claims it does not install the software and that it officially prohibits carriers from doing so.) Sprint has gone so far as to disable Carrier IQ on all its phones, although both it and Carrier IQ assert the data is collected for diagnostics and has not been misused. Carrier IQ has, in fact, repeatedly blamed the carriers for any privacy concerns arising from the use of the software:

While a few individuals have identified that there is a great deal of information available to the Carrier IQ software inside the handset, our software does not record, store or transmit the contents of SMS messages, email, photographs, audio or video. For example, we understand whether an SMS was sent accurately, but do not record or transmit the content of the SMS. We know which applications are draining your battery, but do not capture the screen.

The company’s official statement goes on to insist that users’ privacy “is protected” and that the diagnostics transmitted are encoded for security:

Consumers have a trusted relationship with operators and expect their personal information and privacy to be respected. As a condition of its contracts with operators, Carrier IQ operates exclusively within that framework and under the laws of the applicable jurisdiction. The data we gather is transmitted over an encrypted channel and secured within our customers’ networks or in our audited and customer-approved facilities. Carrier IQ is aware of various commentators alleging Carrier IQ has violated wiretap laws, and we vigorously disagree with these assertions.

The old saying, “it’s not a bug, it’s a feature” is echoed in Carrier IQ’s claim that its software “makes your phone better by delivering intelligence on the performance of mobile devices and networks to help the operators provide optimal service efficiency.” That sounds, on its face, like a good thing. Engadget’s Zachary Lutz doesn’t disagree.

“Executed properly,” he writes, “Carrier IQ has the potential to improve the quality of service for millions of mobile customers – provided that the data collected stays on the up-and-up.” He goes on to explain that all of the controversy surrounding this issue could have been avoided had the carriers given their customers the opportunity to opt out. Informing consumers of what software operates on their devices, and why – while giving them a chance to agree or disagree with these practices – would go a long way toward fostering the “trusted relationship” of which Carrier IQ so blithely speaks.

Over and over again, business entities (and government officials, for that matter) do more damage to themselves and their reputations in their responses to controversy than they do in the missteps that create those conflicts. The public seems willing to accept mistakes, even overt foolishness, provided those involved behave honestly. It’s as if we as consumers are less concerned that someone is competent than we are that he or she is earnest. While not exactly a formula for success, this attitude, too, reflects the desire for a “trusted relationship.” Is that so hard to do in business? Is it too much to expect?

It’s very easy, in our technologically saturated age, to overreact to perceived security problems. We do it all the time. We are told incessantly that legions of nameless, faceless hackers are waiting to pounce on our data and steal our identities – and in many cases, this is as true as it is alarming. The perception of perfidy, however, is as damaging to the consumer as the reality of it. Should that perception drive customer behavior in ways that hurt a company individually or an industry as a whole, relatively benign behavior can become harmful simply because some corporate functionary chose to obfuscate.

“Transparency” is a punch line in government because our politicians promise it while doing everything in their considerable powers to avoid it. We cannot afford to tolerate dishonesty toward consumers unless we wish to see the same corruption become the standard of business. We deserve no less – and should demand more.