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Carrier IQ and the Unwritten Rule of Privacy

What is Carrier IQ? Do you know yet? Media organizations are jumping all over each other to tell us, but it's basically a rootkit that tracks pretty much everything a user does on a smartphone, in some cases all the way down to individual keystrokes.

AT&T and Sprint have already owned up to using it, and it might even be present in some form on the iconic iPhone. Naturally, people are freaking out about this, fussing over privacy and even suggesting that Carrier IQ might violate federal wiretapping laws.

Here at RCPU, we're shrugging. Really, is this that big of a deal? OK, if it violates federal wiretapping laws, then yeah, it probably is. But what's the real impact on smartphone users? We're guessing that it's minimal. No, really. There are a few reasons why.

First of all, even if Sprint does have records of your text messages and is recording every keystroke you execute, do you really think executives in Kansas City are sitting around in some Bourne-movie-style room full of tracking screens, watching your every move and reading your every message?

If so, get over yourself. Big shots at AT&T, Sprint, Apple, Google or wherever don't have the time or the inclination to do that. They don't own black helicopters for spying purposes; if they own them, they're only for shuttling around their overpaid executives. These companies that use Carrier IQ are using the information they gather to work on demographics, figure out users' habits and do that sort of corporate-research thing. They are not trying to rat you out for being at the bar when you say you're working late.

Besides, what does your cell provider not know about you already? And it's not just cell carriers. Cable companies, Internet providers, banks, random Web sites you subscribe to -- they all ask for a load of information, much of it personal. Sometimes that even includes Social Security numbers, which still seems wrong for some reason. (Actually, isn't it technically illegal?)

The fact is, you're already everywhere. Marketers have your information. Google knows how to serve you ads in the least annoying way possible. You're registered in more databases than Starbucks had locations in 2003. (It's really too bad that joke doesn't work anymore.) Everything you surf is kept in some server record somewhere. Your life is public -- unless you're not reading this because you're off the grid -- and yet nobody from Great Big Corp. has ever tried to steal your identity or reveal where you really go on Friday afternoons when you take your "lunch break."

Do we here at RCPU really like this semi-invasive information gathering? Nah, not really, but we live with it. It's too big a battle to fight. Carrier IQ is just a symptom of a much, much greater condition with regard to privacy: We're choosing not to worry about it.

Besides, you know the old unwritten rule, which is unwritten for a reason: If you want to do something in secret, if you want to cover something up or keep it under wraps, never write it down. Don't type it or keystroke it or scribble it on a cocktail napkin. And don't talk about it on the phone or tape it, for heaven's sake. Keep the conversations personal and private...or just don't have stuff to hide in the first place.

How worried are you about your privacy? Sound off in the comments section below or at lpender@rcpmag.com.

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Posted by Lee Pender on December 01, 2011 at 11:57 AM


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