Who Owns Your Phone's Privacy? My Email Chat with Carrier IQS

Last week, some ominous news regarding the FBI's involvement with Carrier IQ surfaced. Carrier IQ, having had its fair heap of godawful press, was quick to shoot me an email clarification. What followed doesn't help its case.

It began with a simple note from Mira Woods, who works in "Marketing Communications" for Carrier IQ:

Just to clarify all of the media frenzy around the FBI.
Carrier IQ has never provided any data to the FBI. If approached by a law enforcement agency, we would refer them to the network operators because the diagnostic data collected belongs to them and not Carrier IQ.

Carrier IQs data is not designed to address the special needs of law enforcement. The diagnostic data that we capture is mostly historical and won't reveal where somebody is and what they are doing on a real-time basis.

Hope this helps answer some of your questions.
Thanks,
Mira

Mira Woods
Marketing Communications
Carrier IQ
mwoods@carrieriq.com

Sorry about the frenzy, Mira! But Carrier IQ seemed like it was trying to distance itself from its own business—collecting data about you for companies. So I replied:

From: Sam Biddle [sbiddle@gizmodo.com<mailto:sbiddle@gizmodo.com><mailto:sbiddle@gizmodo.com<mailto:sbiddle@gizmodo.com>>]
Sent: Tuesday, December 13, 2011 10:36 AM
To: Mira Woods
Subject: Re: FBI question

Thanks Mira—can you expand on what you mean by "the diagnostic data collected belongs to them and not Carrier IQ" ? What exactly is the licensing arrangement?

sam

Mira's response:

From: Mira Woods
To: Sam Biddle
Date: Tue, 13 Dec 2011 12:42:06 -0800
Subject: RE: FBI question

Carrier IQ acts as an agent for the operators. Each carrier's implementation of the software within its network and handsets is unique. The carrier determines the diagnostic information that is actually gathered and Carrier IQ does not gather any other data. 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. Carrier IQ does not sell data to third parties. Only the carrier has access to the data so they can improve the network and device performance for the consumer.

Mira Woods
Marketing Communications
Carrier IQ
mwoods@carrieriq.com

A little ambiguous. I tried again.

Subject: Re: FBI question
From: Sam Biddle
To: Mira Woods

Does Carrier IQ actually have a legal arrangement with carriers whereby diagnostic data is the sole property of said carriers? Does Carrier IQ keep copies? And how is a carrier not considered a third party?

In return, another dodge:

From: Mira Woods
To: Sam Biddle
Date: Tue, 13 Dec 2011 18:23:20 -0800
Subject: RE: FBI question

The carriers are our customers so they use the software to help identify ways to prevent dropped calls, prolong battery life and improve customer service. All mobile providers have some way of extracting diagnostic information about the performance of their network. Carrier IQ provides secure, efficient tools to help carriers solve issues within the network. Carrier IQ takes privacy concerns seriously. Carrier IQ's software must be used in compliance with the laws of the applicable jurisdiction, including those laws that apply to privacy. The data that is gathered, stored and transmitted to the carrier is determined by the carrier's end-user agreement.

Mira Woods
Marketing Communications
Carrier IQ
Phone: 617 513 7020
mwoods@carrieriq.com

This mostly regurgitates the language of Mira's previous email, and ends with a passing of the buck to "the carrier's end-user agreement." I wanted to know how Carrier IQ operates, and its relationship with your privacy. Who owns the information? Where does it go?

Subject: Re: FBI question
From: Sam Biddle
To: Mira Woods

Thanks for the reply Mira, but I'm afraid that didn't really answer my questions. I'll try to make myself more understandable:

1. By what arrangement do carriers own Carrier IQ's diagnostic data? Are they the SOLE owners of this data?

2. Does Carrier IQ retain a copy of any diagnostic data collected, or is it deleted after being sent to carriers?

3. For what reason are carriers not considered to be a "3rd party" by Carrier IQ?

Thanks
Sam

After a day, I received this, the most confounding of all:

From: Mira Woods

To: Sam Biddle
Date: Thu, 15 Dec 2011 12:32:30 -0800
Subject: RE: FBI question

How does this sound? Sorry for the lengthy responses, but want to make sure I covered everything. These statements are attributable to Andrew Coward, VP of Marketing at Carrier IQ as he is the corporate spokesperson.

1. By what arrangement do carriers own Carrier IQ's diagnostic data? Are they the SOLE owners of this data?

The contractual arrangement between Carrier IQ and its customers governs what diagnostic data the carriers own and it is different in each case. The carriers are the sole owners of that data. The Carrier IQ Agent transmits diagnostic data only to the Carrier IQ customer – predominantly Network Operators and some device manufacturers – that specified a profile. In the case of one Network Operator, the diagnostic data is transferred directly from its end users' devices directly to the Network Operator's data center. In the case of other customers, Carrier IQ hosts data for its customers in Carrier IQ's data center. In these instances, Carrier IQ provides use of its server software, which processes the data, called Mobile Service Intelligence Platform (MSIP), to its customers as a managed service. Carrier IQ does not have any rights to the data that is gathered, and the information within the MSIP system is at the control of our customers, the network operators. Carrier IQ does not transmit the data to any third parties, and is contractually prohibited from doing so.

2. Does Carrier IQ retain a copy of any diagnostic data collected, or is it deleted after being sent to carriers?

The metrics gathered by the IQ Agent are held in a temporary location on the device in a form that cannot be read without specifically designed tools and is never in human readable format. The length of time this information is held on the device before upload is based on the profile but is typically 24 hours. During that time, the data is stored in a proprietary binary format. After the data is uploaded, it is deleted from the device. The minimum length of time the diagnostic data is stored in Carrier IQ's data centers is a function of Network Operators or Device Manufacturer's minimum data retention requirements, as specified in their contracts with Carrier IQ. Typical minimum retention periods for Carrier IQ's customers are 30 days, although data may be retained beyond date. Carrier IQ provides a "Software-as-a-Service" model whereby we host the servers on behalf of some customers. In other cases, our customer will host the MSIP system in their data centers. In either case the security of the systems is paramount and our customers audit the protections we place in these systems and facilities. Due to pending litigation, Carrier IQ is taking efforts to preserve all data currently in its data center.

3. For what reason are carriers not considered to be a "3rd party" by Carrier IQ?

The information is the carrier's information. The carrier is the party that has the relationship with the consumer. They are the first and only party that has access to this data.

Mira Woods
Marketing Communications
Carrier IQ
mwoods@carrieriq.com

(emphasis mine)

My reply:

Subject: Re: FBI question
From: Sam Biddle
To: Mira Woods

Are you saying that Carrier IQ doesn't have the rights to the data it collects itself?

Mira seemed to be winding things down:

From: Mira Woods
To: Sam Biddle
Date: Thu, 15 Dec 2011 14:42:31 -0800
Subject: Re: FBI question

No, carriers own the data.

I fished for more:

Date: Fri, 16 Dec 2011 09:27:21 -0500
Subject: Re: FBI question
From: Sam Biddle
To: Mira Woods

I have some followup questions below:

"The contractual arrangement between Carrier IQ and its customers governs what diagnostic data the carriers own and it is different in each case."

So the agreement could be anything, correct?

"The carriers are the sole owners of that data."

Is there anything preventing carriers from selling this data to a third party?

"The Carrier IQ Agent transmits diagnostic data only to the Carrier IQ customer – predominantly Network Operators and some device manufacturers"

Predominantly-who else?

"Carrier IQ does not have any rights to the data that is gathered"

But it has access to it, correct?

"The length of time this information is held on the device before upload is based on the profile but is typically 24 hours."

Typically, but it could be anything, or an indefinite period of time, correct?

"The minimum length of time the diagnostic data is stored in Carrier IQ's data centers is a function of Network Operators or Device Manufacturer's minimum data retention requirements, as specified in their contracts with Carrier IQ. "

See above.

"The information is the carrier's information. The carrier is the party that has the relationship with the consumer. They are the first and only party that has access to this data."

How can they possibly be the first and only party with access? Does Carrier IQ have no idea what kind of data it's collecting? How does it ensure the integrity of its own business if it has zero access or control over data collection?

I had been told, essentially, nothing. Carrier IQ admits to sending your private information to carriers, but divulges nothing concrete about who has access to this information, where, or for how long. They might "typically" delete the data after 24 hours, but what about cases that aren't typical? Typical means nothing.

Carrier IQ is saying it has no access to the data that it collects—a contradictory statement. It's saying it doesn't know what it's relaying to its "customers"—which doesn't sound like the way anyone would really run a business. Collection is access.

I asked Mira once more for some clarification on the above, and received only this:

Sam, I have sent you all of the necessary information.

Except you really haven't.