Carrier IQ security risks overblown?

Security expert reaction and recently published research says yes

While we wait for the final judgment on the privacy implications of the Carrier IQ fiasco, security pros are asking what the potential security implications of the embattled mobile diagnostic software could be.

Carrier IQ has vehemently denied capturing detailed personal information regarding specific customers. "Our software does not record, store or transmit the contents of SMS messages, email, photographs, audio or video," the company said in a statement as we reported earlier this week. "For example, we understand whether an SMS was sent accurately, but do not record or transmit the content of the SMS."

The question for security managers and those interested in ensuring that the data on their devices stays secure is how much, if any, does the Carrier IQ software increase risk?

"Imagine if what we saw in the video by Trevor Eckhart was something one could capture remotely," says Mark Rasch, director of cybersecurity and privacy consulting at CSC. "Still, nothing I've seen indicates that the data flowing through the application is permanently stored and transmitted anywhere."

CarrierIQ does a lot of bad things, security researcher Dan Rosenberg says. It's a potential risk to user privacy, and users should be given the ability to opt out of it," he wrote in this post. "But people need to recognize that there's a big difference between recording events like keystrokes and HTTPS URLs to a debugging buffer (which is pretty bad by itself), and actually collecting, storing, and transmitting this data to carriers (which doesn't happen). After reverse engineering CarrierIQ myself, I have seen no evidence that they are collecting anything more than what they've publicly claimed: anonymized metrics data."

"If all Carrier IQ is doing is collecting information about user experience on the cell phone so developers can make better software, than my only issue is whether the process is secure, and is easy to turn off," says Rasch.

"There's very little additional risk here, if any," adds Pete Lindstrom, research director at Spire Security. "The Carrier IQ logs could be hijacked by an attacker, in theory, but in practice if an attacker had that kind of access to your phone you are already in significant trouble."

"The risk is really only if you lose the device or if the carrier is so insanely stupid as to actually collect the data," says Rich Mogull, founder and analyst at research firm Securosis. "Both seem like reasonably possible risks these days. Still, if you want a carrier-provided rootkit-free phone your only recourse is to put it in your contract and get a list of safe phones from them," he says.

This, of course, doesn't mean that mobile devices are secure. Far from it. Recently, North Carolina State University researchers discovered a series of vulnerabilities within smartphones based on the open source mobile operating system Android. According to Symantec's research paper, " Detection of Capability Leaks in Stock Android Smartphones", it is possible for apps to bypass Android's permissions-based security controls. "In particular, by exploiting these leaked capabilities, an untrusted app on these affected phones can manage to wipe out the user data, send out SMS messages (e.g., to premium numbers), record user conversation, or obtain user geo-locations -- all without asking for any permission," the report stated.

Whether Carrier IQ turns out to be a security risk or not, we know one thing is certain: Mobile security risks are growing as more attention and valuable data is placed on these devices.

George V. Hulme writes about security and technology from his home in Minneapolis. You can also find him tweeting about those topics on Twitter @georgevhulme

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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