carrieriqsolutionQuite a kerfuffle blew up during the past week over privacy and what happens to information about your mobile phone usage that, unknown to you, is captured on your device by logging software made by US diagnostics and analytics firm Carrier IQ and then transmitted to their servers.

The story so far:

1. A security researcher published a report on November 30 alleging that Carrier IQ’s software is a rootkit and secretly transmits data¬† – including personally-identifiable information – from your phone to Carrier IQ without your knowledge or permission. The researcher made a video illustrating his concerns which he published on YouTube on November 28.

In essence, what the video and the report mean is broadly this: because a mobile phone user hasn’t given explicit permission for such data sharing (and doesn’t even know this software is on his or her phone) and they can’t opt out of it, surely it’s a violation of your rights to privacy.

2. Uproar ensues, with mainstream and social media alike posting critical commentary and opinion on the Big Brother-like evils of such behaviour, which is possibly illegal depending on jurisdiction and matters that could keep lawyers busy for months. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, the non-profit digital rights advocacy organization, rallied to the researcher’s support to counter legal threats from Carrier IQ that the researcher had breached their copyright.

Vilification of Carrier IQ was well underway within hours of publication of the researcher’s report.

3. On December 1, Carrier IQ issued a press release “to clarify misinformation on the functionality of Carrier IQ software”:

[…] 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 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.

Notwithstanding Carrier IQ’s attempt to logically explain what their product does – and perhaps of equal significance, what it doesn’t do – the kerfuffle continues with “yes it does / no it doesn’t” arguments being conducted by pundits and opinion leaders alike that muddy the waters of clarity to stir up a huge amount of FUD.

Interestingly, Carrier IQ isn’t anywhere to be seen in those online conversations: no comments to blog posts, tweets of engagement, or Facebook and Google+ comments.

Observing developments these past few days reminds me of other crises of confidence that threaten reputations that erupted quickly and before you knew it, an unplanned-for crisis had presented itself to you to deal with right now.

Think of:

  • Healthcare company McNeil’s baptism of digital fire over the Motrin Moms debacle – the communicators weren’t paying attention to a groundswell of critical online commentary about a marketing video promoting their market-leading over-the-counter ibuprofen pain reliever that erupted over a weekend until it reached the mainstream media and sucked in parent company Johnson & Johnson.
  • Domino’s Pizza’s education regarding the social media effects from employees doing disgusting things with food products and posting the videos they made to YouTube – company executives were paying attention to increasing criticism in social media and calls for a response from the company but a senior executive had dismissed social channels like blogs as “unimportant.”

To be fair to these two companies, those events happened in late 2008 and early 2009 respectively – a time when many people in companies large and small were still trying to figure out social media. If mistakes were made, they tended to be hugely visible and high profile, as these two cases certainly were (and, in the case of Domino’s Pizza, subsequently resulted in a direct negative impact on their financial results).