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There is no easy way for users to disable or remove the tool, which runs behind the scenes regardless of what the user is doing on the phone. But some handset makers, including HTC, have said they are exploring whether to allow consumers to opt out of data collection by Carrier IQ. And a security company, Bitdefender, last weekend released an app that can detect whether Carrier IQ is running on a phone. Another company, Whisper Systems, already offers Android apps that can help keep track of what different apps are up to on a device.

Catalin Cosoi, head of online threats at Bitdefender, however, says that inserting the Carrier IQ auditing function would have to be done at the operating system level, to which application developers do not have access. It would require a tweak by Apple to its iOS operating system, or by handset makers and networks using Android and other operating systems.

Until that happens, Cosoi adds, users have one other way to check what their smart phones are sending out: they can connect the phone to a laptop or PC running a traffic-sniffing program, such as Wireshark. But this is a fairly technical procedure, not the kind of simple function that users have come to expect on their phones.

Carriers and handset makers, including Apple, didn’t immediately return calls for comment on the transparency-app idea yesterday. AT&T replied to reiterate that it used Carrier IQ only for network maintenance, and did not address questions about whether it might give customers a way to audit data dispatches.

On the specifics of Carrier IQ, Zittrain says it is too soon to say how serious the matter might be. “It seems like there are competing empirical claims about what the software is doing,” he says. And until more is known, he says, it is not particularly useful to focus on what the software has the potential to do. “You could say any application or process on a traditional PC has the potential to wipe your hard drive or monitor its bits, too,” he notes.

But an easy-to-use auditing window would resolve the problem and prevent future controversies. “Why shouldn’t we know what our phones are up to?” says Zittrain. 

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Tagged: Computing, security, privacy, Android, mobile phones, surveillance, iOS

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