Carrier IQ was once just an obscure company, working behind the scenes, its software installed on some 140 million phones and capable of tracking phone usage, mostly to provide mobile carriers with data critical to the operation of their networks. The software can detect dropped calls, signal strength, network utilization, and phone performance, as well as things like battery life and application performance--basically how the devices were performing on the network, and the gap between consumer perception and carrier perception.
The software was used by Sprint and AT&T, across multiple device types, and is now also used by T-Mobile and Cricket, said Andrew Coward, Carrier IQ's VP of Marketing and Product Management. While it might seem as if the carriers already have access to their network performance, they don't necessarily have it from the device's point of view. In fact, customer care agents, when helping customers, need to see what the user sees (for example, where the user was when a call was dropped). Naturally all of this data became important to the handset manufacturers as well, creating an entire ecosystem of parties interested in this data.
But then along came security researcher Trevor Eckhart's discoveries about how that data was being exposed, and the potential for privacy abuse. Specifically Eckhart saw that Carrier IQ's software was tracking all of the HTTP and HTTPS traffic from his HTC phone, in addition to phone numbers and the contents of incoming and outgoing SMS messages. Questions arose concerning whether this violated federal wiretap laws, and Carrier IQ allegedly threatened Eckhart for exposing information. Eckhart and others created some demonstration videos showing users how to disable Carrier IQ. Sprint even pulled Carrier IQ software from its devices.
Carrier IQ claims that the information Eckhart found wasn't really the company's fault; the mistake was in how the operators were deploying the tool. Since then, the company has issued a white paper, detailing how its technology works, and it has detailed the data it collects, in addition to allowing third-party inspection of its software and data, according to Coward.
In a way, then, it makes sense that Carrier IQ is trying to extend its tools to consumers--as if to say, we have nothing to hide, and in fact we're here to help. Carrier IQ announced a consumer dashboard of data, but it's really an API that allows mobile operators to create ways to expose the data to customers; a way to extend the carrier platform, IQ Care, to their customers.
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Coward said that it would be in the interest of these mobile operators, simply because it could help lower support costs, especially as customers now call their provider for help in solving phone issues, not just network problems. For example, about half of the phones that customers return to mobile operators have nothing wrong with them, and the process of having phones returned, troubleshooting the problems, and issuing new phones can be costly.
"The cost of support is so astronomically high that [the mobile operators] want customers to self help," Coward said. The operators want to "provide enough information such that consumers don't have to call them."
The Carrier IQ tool collects a huge volume of data, but its magic, Coward said, is in analyzing the data, which is where the company spends most of its resources. Every piece of data gets a traffic light-like rating (red, green, yelllow) for every aspect of performance--voice experience, data experience, battery life, application failure, all from the device point of view. If there's a battery life issue, the software can be used to determine if it's really the battery life or it's really an application that is draining the battery. All of this information is fairly simple to dive into and understand.
Another important aspect of the software is what Coward called a "dynamic normal." That is, all data is viewed through the lens of what's normal, or what's happening to others (within a network, with similar hardware, and so on). That version of normal changes over time, but the specific users' performance is compared back to this "dynamic normal."
While all of this seems especially enticing, and Carrier IQ should be applauded for being willing to expose its data, it will be up to the operators to make that happen, and doing so could be a double-edged sword. Forget whether users will really use such a tool (which is questionable), but imagine if the operator is experiencing dramatic delays or dropped calls and that information is getting exposed to the consumer … they'll have plenty to answer for.
Which is, perhaps, as it should be.
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