Carrier IQ drops legal threat against security researcher

Company's software enables surreptitious tracking of mobile phone users, researcher said

Software vendor Carrier IQ has withdrawn its threat to sue a security researcher for saying that its software helps phone companies surreptitiously track users of many popular mobile phones.

Company CEO Larry Lenhart, also apologized to researcher Trevor Eckhart for making the threat and expressed his interest in having an "open dialogue" going forward.

Eckhart earlier this month published a document explaining how Carrier IQ's software, which runs by default on several mobile devices, could be used to log detailed information about the phone user's activities.

In his analysis, Eckhart likened Carrier IQ's software to a rootkit that could be used to collect virtually any kind of data from a mobile phone without the user's permission or knowledge.

A lot of the information collected by the software is designed to enable mobile operators and device vendors to quickly identify and address quality and service-related issues. But the software can be tweaked to gather much more intrusive data about a user's location, the software and applications on the device, which keys being pressed and what applications are in use, Eckhart said in his analysis.

In many cases, the software is hidden from users, collects information without their knowledge and is relatively hard for non-technical users to detect and to remove, Eckhart maintained.

In doing his analysis, Eckhart referenced publicly available training materials that he had accessed from Carrier IQ's site. He mirrored those training documents on two separate sites in order to let other security researchers verify his findings in case Carrier IQ removed the materials from its site.

In response, Carrier IQ sent a cease-and-desist letter to Eckhart accusing him of copyright infringement for making copies of the company's training material. The company demanded that Eckhart remove his analysis from the Web and replace it instead with an apology crafted by the company.

The letter also directed Eckhart to contact all those whom he had directly or indirectly provided copies of the training materials and to inform them that the material was copyright protected. The cease-and-desist letter asked Eckhart to provide Carrier IQ with the names and contact information of everybody might have gotten copies of the training documents.

Carrier IQ also wanted Eckhart to issue a press release via the Associated Press, expressing his regret and his apology for publishing the analysis and calling its software a rootkit.

Eckhart contacted the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which promptly agreed to defend the researcher against Carrier IQ's threat.

EFF sent a note ( download PDF ) to Carrier IQ, challenging the company's claims and asking it to withdraw its threat against Eckhart immediately.

In its letter, the EFF said Carrier IQ's claims were baseless and noted that Eckhart's work and his use of Carrier IQ's training materials were protected under the First Amendment and by the fair use doctrine.

"Given that there is no basis for your legal claims, we must conclude that your threats are motivated by a desire to suppress Mr. Eckhart's research conclusions, and to prevent others from verifying those conclusions," the EFF said in its letter.

Lenhart's apology to Eckhart and its decision to withdraw its threat against him were contained in a letter ( download PDF ) to the EFF last week. "We are deeply sorry for any concern or trouble that our letter may have caused Mr. Eckhart," Lenhart wrote. "In retrospect, we realize that we would have been better served by reaching out to Mr. Eckhart to establish a dialogue in the first instance."

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is .

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