Amid what's snowballing into a major privacy controversy, AT&T, Sprint, HTC, and Samsung today confirmed that their mobile phones integrate a controversial piece of tracking software from a company called Carrier IQ.
Both wireless carriers AT&T and Sprint insisted that the software is being used solely to improve wireless network performance, while phone makers HTC and Samsung said they were integrating the software into their cellphones only because their carrier customers were asking for it.
Meanwhile, several large carriers and cellphone makers -- including Verizon Wireless, Research in Motion, and Nokia -- distanced themselves from the software and insisted that reports about their devices integrating the tool are false. Apple also said it has stopped using the Carrier IQ software, never collected personal data, and would remove the last vestiges in an update.
The controversy began last week when independent security researcher Trevor Eckhart published a report disclosing how Carrier IQ's software could be used by carriers and device makers to conduct surreptitious and highly intrusive tracking of Android and other smartphone users.
Eckhart described the software as a hard-to-detect and equally hard-to-remove rootkit that could be used by carriers and phone makers to collect almost any kind of data from a mobile phone without the user's knowledge. Eckhart said his research showed that Carrier IQ's software was often enabled to run by default on several mobile devices including those from Samsung, HTC, and RIM.
A lot of the information collected by Carrier IQ is designed to enable mobile operators and device vendors to quickly identify and address quality and service-related issues. But the software can be tweaked to gather more intrusive data about a user's location, the software, and applications on the device, which keys are being pressed and what applications are in use, Eckhart said in his analysis.
Earlier this week, Eckhart posted a video clip on YouTube showing how Carrier IQ's software recorded all of the keystrokes he made on his cellphone, even when the phone was reset to factory setting and put into airplane safe mode, at which time it was no longer part of the carrier's network. In his research, Eckhart said that phone carriers could program the software to send user data whenever certain triggers or actions were completed.
Carrier IQ maintains that its software does not do all of the things claimed by Eckhart. In a PDF statement posted on its website on Nov. 23, the company claimed that its software does not record keystrokes, provide tracking tools, inspect the content on a phone, or provide any real-time data reporting to its customers. "Our software is designed to help mobile network providers diagnose critical issues that lead to problems such as dropped calls and battery drain," the statement said. The company also said its software is installed on more than 150 million devices worldwide.