Why transparency is crucial to the success of mobility


Carrier IQ brings up a negative image for many people. You wonder, aren't they the company that was secretly taking personal information, including maybe even text messages and email from your phone? Why were they operating so mysteriously? Why were the carriers denying that they used it?

The problem is, the image is inaccurate. Yes, Carrier IQ was (and is still) probably collecting information from your phone, assuming that their monitoring software was installed as part of the carrier's package that's preloaded before the device is shipped. Some companies, such as Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL), don't allow Carrier IQ software (probably because the company won't pay Apple's 30 percent) and others will provide removal instructions, as Research in Motion (NASDAQ: RIMM) did last year.

But what hasn't come to the front of the discussion is that Carrier IQ really isn't doing anything nearly as bad as everyone said they must be. The reason everyone thought Carrier IQ was doing something evil was because of a flawed demo video put on the Internet by an IT manager. But had the phone companies that install and use Carrier IQ been forthcoming in the first place, and had Carrier IQ operated at the time with full transparency, there would have been no story.

But the fact is that they didn't. Carrier IQ, which collects information from cellphones, performs an analysis of things like signal quality and dropped calls, performs its service to the phone companies. The phone companies meanwhile were apparently channeling their inner Lily Tomlin and just didn't respond as the storm over their practices grew to the point that Senate hearings started to crop up.

Now, while Senate hearings don't necessarily require much of an issue to crop up, they're still really bad for the image of those that they're aimed at. This was one of those cases. Fortunately, it wasn't long before the carriers did decide that they cared, and 'fessed up to the fact that they do use Carrier IQ. Carrier IQ, for its part, went the full-disclosure route, which it needed to do and should have done sooner. The company has also taken the next step and appointed Magnolia Mobley as its chief privacy officer.

The problem is that transparency has to happen in more places than just at Carrier IQ. That company is to be commended for taking the steps it has. But there are plenty of other companies and organizations that want to keep secrets they shouldn't. For example, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration sponsored a number of GPS tests that it conducted with a number of participants. Once the tests found that LightSquared's proposed LTE service interfered with GPS, the company complained that the tests were rigged and that the government wouldn't even disclose the names of the GPS receivers being tested.

When LightSquared started complaining, which was about a month after the testing in the fall of 2011, there was nothing available from NTIA other than a letter saying that LightSquared failed the test. Eventually, the results of the test were made public, but the receivers that were tested are still a secret. The government wouldn't even respond to Freedom of Information Act requests for the list. Why is this a secret? Is it possible that LightSquared is correct in saying the tests were rigged? This is a classic example of a situation in which transparency has a strong negative effect on the entire wireless device industry. Even if you wanted to buy GPS devices for your company that were able to reject interference, you can't. Nobody will tell you the results. How can this be a good thing?

These are just two examples. In one, the company, Carrier IQ, took the responsible road. NTIA, on the other hand, continues to use the claim of classified information to hide critical information from users of GPS. Now, my decades of experience as a journalist tell me that when a company or organization hides something, then they're up to no good. So what is the government trying to hide?

Right now, this lack of information puts a gray cloud over the GPS industry. Is the GPS you need for your delivery trucks one of those that may be subject to interference? The government knows, but it won't tell you. It's time for answers. - Wayne

To follow Wayne Rash on Twitter, click here.