How to Make Sure Your Android Phone Isn’t Spying On You

Last year, iPhone users had to deal with “locationgate.” Now, Android users have their privacy to worry about, as recent information that’s been uncovered by YouTuber TrevorEckhart has shown that software made by a company called Carrier IQ, installed by default on many Android phones by the carriers and hardware manufacturers, is tracking a whole lot more about your phone usage than just your location.

What is Carrier IQ, exactly?

The software is hidden inside phones — there is little you can do to detect that it’s even installed, let alone remove it, and it tracks everything. Keystrokes, browsing and surfing habits, Google searches, and basically every single thing that you are doing on your phone and every button that you press is logged by this software. Jump to 9:00 in the YouTube video below for the proof — this is basically a keylogger running on your phone that you didn’t know about.

The company that’s creating this software claims that the point of the software is to deliver “analytics” about devices to the carriers to help them provide better service to their users. But is recording every keystroke really necessary for that information? Does not telling the users about this and making it near-impossible to opt out seem a bit fishy to anybody else? This software is on almost all Android phones made by the big names (HTC, Samsung, Motorola), and is even on BlackBerries and Nokia devices, as well.

Carrier IQ says in this public statement that it is “not logging keystrokes or providing tracking tools” and that its software is used to track performance, but the video proves entirely otherwise: this app is sitting in between you and the Android OS and is making a note of everything you do. Secure websites don’t help. Even using Wi-Fi doesn’t help. Your phone use is being logged by this software, and there is no way to easily opt out.

So what can I do to ensure my privacy?

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to protect yourself. There’s no switch that you can turn off in the settings of your phone or software that appears in your app drawer that you can simply uninstall. As far as the GUI of your phone is concerned, Carrier IQ isn’t even there. But it is there, hiding in the background, making sure that you don’t even know it exists. And for many, that’s just not cool. Your phone is a deeply personal device and contains lots of things (emails, photos, text messages) that many would consider totally private. Why should this company have access?

While I’m almost certain that the hubbub on the blogosphere that has resulted from TrevorEckhart’s research will force the company to come up with a way to turn its software off, that has not happened yet. In the meantime, Android users who value their privacy need some kind of a solution. If you’d like to make sure Carrier IQ is not on your phone, the best way to do that would be to replace the Android ROM on your phone with another that does not have Carrier IQ installed.

Here’s how to do it:

First, you need to root your phone. Rooting isn’t as scary as it may sound, and there are many guides available for the different devices. The best place to look for information on rooting is the XDA Forum. Search on the page for your phone name and go to the “General” forum for the device. There, you should find threads with guides on how to root and get the phone ready to install custom ROMs. The process varies widely phone by phone, so we can’t give you a definitive guide here, but XDA is generally on top of the best rooting processes for the major devices.

The next step is to find a ROM that supports your device that does not have Carrier IQ installed on it. Your best bet is to look for “AOSP” or “Vanilla” ROMs. These are versions of Android that have built entirely from the open source code for Android that’s released by Google each time a new version comes out. These ROMs will be free from carrier and device manufacturer tinkering, and won’t have Carrier IQ hiding in the background.

Another great custom ROM solution is Cyanogenmod. Cyanogenmod has some nice additional tweaks and features above stock Android, and is definitely the most well respected and most frequently updated custom ROM out there. Additionally, it’s available on most popular Android devices out there. We wrote a guide on installing Cyanogenmod earlier this year, as well as a guide on updating Cyanogenmod to the newest version. If you are worried about Carrier IQ, I recommend Cyanogenmod as the best solution. The developers are even working hard on the next version, based on Android 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich.

Final thoughts

I’ve had a custom ROM installed on my Android phone since day one, mostly because I don’t want to deal with Verizon’s bloatware, and I’m happy that this Carrier IQ tracking fiasco has not — and will not ever — affect me. It’s not okay that it’s affecting others, and the best way to combat it is to install a custom ROM and let Carrier IQ know that what it is doing is not okay. Here’s their website. Here’s the company’s contact page. We need as many Android fans as possible letting the people there know that they have installed Cyanogenmod specifically because Carrier IQ’s software invades their privacy. Let them know that unless they make this service opt-in rather than impossible to opt-out, you as a user will avoid their software and let your friends know that by default, their phone is spying on them.

In this digital age, privacy is more important than ever. Just because you “don’t have anything to hide,” does not mean that you shouldn’t value your privacy or fight for it when companies do things like this, especially with something as personal as your cell phone. While I understand that tracking some information such as phone performance and signal level anonymously is okay and important for carriers to optimize their networks, your keystrokes on your cell phone should not be logged, period.

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