Dec. 1, 2011 at 3:04 PM ET
Updated at 6 p.m. PT
Three of the nation's four largest wireless carriers — AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile — say they use Carrier IQ's controversial key-logging software, say they do not use it to monitor subscribers' activities. The Carrier IQ program is an analytical tool, strictly to "improve wireless network and service performance," not to track users' personal data, said AT&T.
Sprint said in a statement that Carrier IQ software helps "analyze our network performance and identify where we should be improving service," but it does not "and cannot look at the contents of messages, photos, videos, etc., using this tool. The information collected is not sold and we don't provide a direct feed of this data to anyone outside of Sprint."
T-Mobile, contacted by msnbc.com, said late Thursday it uses Carrier IQ strictly as a "diagnostic tool to troubleshoot device and network performance with the goal of enhancing network reliability and our customers' experience." The carrier "does not use this diagnostic tool to obtain the content of text, email or voice messages, or the specific destinations of a customers' Internet activity, nor is the tool used for marketing purposes."
Verizon Wireless told msnbc.com it doesn't put Carrier IQ "on our phones, nor do we use any Carrier IQ data." Asked whether it uses similar programs from other companies, a Verizon Wireless spokesperson said it does not.
Meanwhile, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., chairman of the Senate's subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and Law, is asking Carrier IQ to clarify exactly what its software can and can't do.
One wireless industry representative, who asked to remain anonymous, said Carrier IQ software is "not an Orwellian plot to gather people's information. It's to help us see if someone is dropping calls, where there are dead spots," and other network issues; "it's not to gather people's personal information or to see what you're doing or where you're going."
Still, if the software can do those things, as one researcher contends, there are concerns about whether Carrier IQ is violating federal wiretap laws.
“If Carrier IQ has gotten the handset manufactures to install secret software that records keystrokes intended for text messaging and the Internet and are sending some of that information back somewhere, this is very likely a federal wiretap," Paul Ohm, a former Justice Department prosecutor and law professor at the University of Colorado Law School, told Forbes. “And that gives the people wiretapped the right to sue and provides for significant monetary damages.”
Carrier IQ, in a statement late Thursday, said it is "aware of various commentators alleging Carrier IQ has violated wiretap laws and we vigorously disagree with these assertions."
Meanwhile, Research In Motion, maker of the BlackBerry, said Thursday it doesn't install Carrier IQ on its phones, and doesn't authorize wireless carriers to use the program.
That counters the finding of the security researcher, Trevor Eckhart of Connecticut, who said that Carrier IQ software is installed on many Android, BlackBerry and Nokia phones. His YouTube video of the software in action has stunned many as it shows Carrier IQ logging information, including text messages, as the information is tapped onto the phone keyboard. But RIM and Nokia said Carrier IQ is not used on their devices.
"RIM does not pre-install the Carrier IQ app on BlackBerry smartphones or authorize its carrier partners to install the Carrier IQ app before sales or distribution," RIM told Reuters. "RIM also did not develop or commission the development of the Carrier IQ application, and has no involvement in the testing, promotion or distribution of the app."
The iPhone, too, may have the software on it, albeit in a more benign way. According to The Verge, Grant Paul, aka "Chpwn," a "well-known" iPhone hacker, said that Carrier IQ's software on the iPhone may only be active when the phone is in "diagnostic mode," which is normally set to off as a default.
Apple, in a statement to Cult of Mac, said "We stopped supporting CarrierIQ with iOS 5 in most of our products and will remove it completely in a future software update. With any diagnostic data sent to Apple, customers must actively opt-in to share this information, and if they do, the data is sent in an anonymous and encrypted form and does not include any personal information. We never recorded keystrokes, messages or any other personal information for diagnostic data and have no plans to ever do so."
Eckhart says Carrier IQ's software, designed to monitor the performance of a cell phone on a network, is a "rootkit," spying on unsuspecting users. Carrier IQ says it is not.
The Mountain View, California company, which said it has been inundated with "thousands" of requests for comment," issued a lengthy statement late Thursday about its software.
"We measure and summarize performance of the device to assist Operators (wireless carriers) in delivering better service," Carrier IQ said in the statement.
"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 (text) 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."
Carrier IQ also says "privacy is protected" when its software is used. "Consumers have a trusted relationship with Operators and expect their personal information and privacy to be respected ... The data we gather is transmitted over an encrypted channel and secured within our customers’ networks or in our audited and customer-approved facilities."
While Carrier IQ's "in-network tools deliver information such as the location of calls and call quality, they do not provide information on the most important aspect of the service — the mobile device itself."
We'll continue to follow the issue. For those "tinfoil hat people," as Gizmodo called them, they're not alone. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, speaking at a panel discussion, said Thursday:
"Who here has an iPhone? Who here has a BlackBerry? Who here uses Gmail? Well, you're all screwed. The reality is, intelligence contractors are selling right now to countries across the world mass surveillance systems for all those products." Perhaps this is merely a first glimpse of what's to come.