Twin Cities man sues Apple, AT&T over data monitoring

  • Article by: STEVE ALEXANDER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 20, 2012 - 9:54 PM

In the federal lawsuit, George Howell is alleging that his personal cellphone data on his iPhone were tracked.

A Twin Cities man has become the latest consumer to sue Apple, AT&T and California software firm Carrier IQ for allegedly spying on his iPhone via secret monitoring software.

About 60 similar lawsuits have been filed against cellphone companies nationwide.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis by consumer George Howell, says the alleged spying violates federal privacy, wiretap and fraud laws. The suit seeks unspecified damages, and seeks to become a class action on behalf of more than 140 million cellphone and mobile device owners who are believed to be affected.

Alex Carey, an AT&T spokesman, said the firm "can't comment on pending litigation." Spokesmen for Apple and Carrier IQ did not return a reporter's phone calls Friday.

The cellphone monitoring software was discovered in November by Trevor Eckhart, a computer security researcher, who posted a YouTube video about it. Cellular companies AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint have said they use the software, while Verizon Wireless has said it does not. Apple has said it will remove the software from iPhones in a future software update.

Carrier IQ, which designed the software, says in a statement on its website that the monitoring software was created only to improve the user experience by recording how a cellphone performed on a cellular network. The software, called the "IQ Agent," has been installed on smartphones, regular cellphones and tablet computers, the firm said.

The software is capable of collecting information from individual cellphones about carrier networks, data transmission speeds, phone numbers called, websites visited and battery life. But Carrier IQ said some information was recorded inadvertently. For example, it said the software wasn't designed to capture keystrokes or text messages, but through some software glitches apparently did.

In most cases, the IQ Agent software cannot be removed from a cellphone or other mobile devices by consumers, Carrier IQ said.

Howell's suit alleges that the software also collects "the user's location, even when the user has expressly denied permission for that information to be recorded."

The concern over cellphone monitoring comes at a time when Internet privacy concerns are exploding and enormous amounts of personal data are being gathered online by banks, retailers and advertising firms. In the past year, the Federal Trade Commission has reached agreements with some of the most-used services on the Internet -- Google, Facebook and Twitter -- to avoid disclosure of private information. Meanwhile, corporate data breaches that reveal personal information to thieves have become common, creating heightened fears of identity theft and resulting financial loss.

After the disclosure of the cellphone monitoring software, Carrier IQ executives met in Washington, D.C., with representative of the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission.

About 60 similar lawsuits have been filed by other plaintiffs in California, Illinois, Delaware and Missouri, said Minneapolis attorney Daniel Hedlund, who represents Howell. Because the suits are similar, they are likely to be consolidated into a single federal court, Hedlund said. None of the suits has yet been certified as a class action, he said.

Howell's suit doesn't allege that he suffered any harm from the monitoring of his phone except that the software "degrades the performance" of the phone because it can't be turned off.

"The hard thing about this is that you don't really know what's been compromised," Hedlund said. "Howell's information was not misused to his knowledge. He only alleges that the software was put on the phone without authorization, and that it mines information such as text messages and searches, and that it allegedly slowed the performance of his phone."

Howell, who has owned several iPhones on the AT&T network, declined to be interviewed about the lawsuit, Hedlund said.

Steve Alexander • 612-673-4553

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