Gigaom

The NSA Could Collect Far More Than Your Phone Records


Working on a cell phone tower in Bangkok, Thailand

Photograph by Sakchai Lalit/AP Photo

Working on a cell phone tower in Bangkok, Thailand

The revelation that the National Security Agency is collecting our phone records has generated considerable outrage, but phone call metadata is just the beginning of what our nation’s spooks could gather from our mobile carriers if they put their minds and resources to the task.

The carriers don’t just know whom we are calling, when, and where. They have the infrastructure in place that allows them to track the websites we visit and the applications we use on our phones and tablets.

They know all this because it’s their job to know. When our phones connect to the Internet, they don’t just magically link with Google (GOOG) or Facebook (FB). That information is routed through carrier network cores, where packet-sniffing, traffic-shaping, and content optimization engines lie in wait. And —at least in the past—they’ve actually put such monitoring software directly onto our phones (more on that in a bit).

There’s nothing innately nefarious about such traffic management, though in some cases, such as speed-throttling and app-blocking, consumers aren’t happy with the result. The reason they’re manipulating our mobile Internet traffic is to conserve limited wireless bandwidth, to provide a better customer experience, and, yes, to protect their own services and revenue streams.

Companies as diverse as Skyfire, Citrix Systems (CTXS), and Vasona Networks sell traffic optimization technology to mobile operators that lets them transcode video on the fly, tailoring it to the resolution and parameters of your phone screen.

Almost every major carrier uses some kind of policy engine, supplied by such companies as Oracle (ORCL). Those engines are the rule makers and the rule enforcers of the mobile Internet. AT&T (T) and Verizon Wireless use them to throttle back your speeds when they deem you’ve “abused” your unlimited plan, while T-Mobile (TMUS) does the same when you’ve exceeded your data cap.

These technologies have been used for questionable purposes—for instance, to enforce TeliaSonera’s (TLSN:SS) short-lived fees on VoIP usage, but they’ll also become the basis of new forms of data pricing. For instance, Orange (FTE:FP) uses policy overseas to offer special social networking plans, giving customers unlimited Facebook access on what would normally be capped plans. AT&T and Verizon are both promoting the idea of a subsidized mobile Internet, where content providers such as ESPN (DIS) and Hulu pay the network freight charges for their content.

The point is that to apply these rules and optimize traffic, carriers need to know what that traffic is: which Web pages are being rendered and which videos are being streamed. And ultimately they need to know to whose phone that content is bound.

Mobile operators’ use of these technologies landed them in hot water two years ago, when a developer discovered a hidden mobile app on his Android device that appeared to log all his smartphone activity and send it out to a company called Carrier IQ. It turned out that Carrier IQ’s software had been installed on millions of devices sold by Sprint Nextel (S), AT&T, and T-Mobile.

Carrier IQ’s purpose was intended to be benign. It’s a diagnostic tool, used by operators to identify and address network problems quickly and to trouble-shoot smartphone apps or services when customers call customer service. But as Carrier IQ acknowledged, its platform could collect some pretty specific data in pursuit of that diagnostic mission, including what URL customers are visiting and what apps they’re using.

The controversy resulted in a firestorm of media coverage and a Congressional inquiry and led many U.S. carriers and device makers to excise Carrier IQ from their handsets. The scandal largely blew over after a few months, but the fact remains that carriers had installed hidden monitoring software on their customers’ handsets without telling them and without giving them a means to opt out.

(I reached out to Carrier IQ and was told that it has received no national security requests for its data, nor is it aware of any law enforcement agency interested in that data.)

I seriously doubt the operators have gigantic databases storing every detail of their customers’ mobile Internet habits. They have no reason to create them. Their interest in all this data is to optimize their networks, bill for usage, and make their customers stick the service rules they’ve set—all in real time. Most of that data become useless the moment after they traverse the network.

But it wouldn’t be difficult for the NSA to collect and aggregate that data from carriers networks, just as it’s reportedly doing with Web giants Google and the ISPs. The mobile operators are essentially ISPs that offer roving connections. The NSA could get that information from multiple sources, gathered from within the network or, in some case, directly from our phones. All it would take, I assume, is the proper FISA order.

And there’s certainly precedence for governments going after such data before. In 2011, Nokia Siemens Networks (NOK) attracted some controversial attention when the mobile network it sold Iran’s state-run telecom provider was revealed to be spying on Iranian citizens’ IP communications.

Good technology can be used for bad purposes. That doesn’t mean we should toss out the technology. In the case of Carrier IQ, many consumers might welcome the idea of their carriers knowing the reasons why their phones aren’t working properly. Traffic optimization prevents an entire network cell from becoming bogged down while streaming an HD video to a tiny phone screen. Policy servers could eventually lead to incredibly customizable cellular service and maybe even the widespread readoption of some form of inexpensive unlimited data plan.

But there’s also a very scary proposition here. We have a government with no qualms about secretly collecting information on its citizens. And we have a mobile industry that isn’t up front about what data it can and does collect from its customers. It’s bad enough that information we know is tracked is being secretly shared with the NSA. But what about the information we don’t know carriers collect?

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Fitchard is a writer for the GigaOM Network.

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