One of the leading U.S. civil-rights organizations is taking on an unusual cause: spotty smartphone updates.
American Civil Liberties Union is asking the U.S. Federal Trade
Commission to investigate what it considers a failure by U.S. wireless
carriers to properly update the Google-built operating system used on
Android phones. The ACLU says that sluggish fixes have been saddling
many smartphone users with software that is out of date and therefore
"At its core, it's not all that different from any
other defective product issue," said the ACLU's Chris Soghoian, who drew
the analogy between a vulnerable smartphone and "a toaster that blows
Experts and government officials have long warned that
failing to fix known security flaws - whether on phones or computers -
gives hackers opportunities to steal data or use the devices to launch
The ACLU's 17-page complaint, filed Tuesday,
accused carriers AT&T Inc., Sprint Nextel Corp., T-Mobile USA and
Verizon Wireless of ignoring those warnings. It cited figures showing
that only 2 percent of Android devices worldwide had the latest version
of Google's operating system installed. The complaint said that as many
as 40 percent of all Android users are still using versions of software
released more than two years ago.
The complaint said the carriers
were exposing Android customers to "substantial harm" by not moving fast
enough on upgrades. The ACLU asked the FTC to force carriers to either
warn customers about the issue or start offering refunds.
said it received the ACLU's complaint but declined to comment further.
The agency does not necessarily have to take the complaint up. If it
does, an investigation would likely take months.
replied to queries from The Associated Press denied delays in the
updates, often described as patches. In emailed statements, Sprint said
it followed "industry-standard best practices" to protect its customers,
while Verizon said its patches were delivered "as quickly as possible."
AT&T and T-Mobile did not return emails seeking comment. Google
Inc., which was not targeted by the complaint, declined comment.
are in a tricky position. Google makes its Android operating software
available for phone makers to use and modify as they see fit. Phone
makers, in turn, let wireless carriers make additional changes, such as
restricting software upgrades. The three-part process involves "rigorous
testing," according to Verizon.
Making sure newer versions of
Google's operating system run smoothly with all the various devices and
carriers involved is particularly important for older phones, which may
have trouble running the latest software or apps. Customers may not
notice or care whether their Android device is running the latest and
safest operating system, but they will notice if a misconfigured update
means they can't make calls or run their favorite apps.
Breaux, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University in
Pittsburgh, said the testing process was straightforward. He suggested
that carriers were struggling to adapt to the realities of fast-changing
"There are standard practices for testing and evaluating patches," Breaux said. "Microsoft does this all the time."
Silva, a telecom policy analyst with New York-based Medley Global
Advisors, said he had a tough time understanding the delays given the
highly competitive U.S. cellphone market.
"It's hard to know why they haven't done it to date," he said. "They have all the incentive in the world."
said that pressuring carriers to update their phones more quickly
wasn't a bid to turn the ACLU into a consumer-protection body. Instead,
he said, the organization wanted to advertise the sorts of steps that
could be taken to boost the nation's online defenses without the need
for invasive new laws. In particular, he referred to a cybersecurity
bill now before Congress. Critics - including the White House - say that
bill doesn't adequately protect private data.
"This is part of
our attempt to reframe the cybersecurity agenda," Soghoian said. "Before
violating anyone's privacy, the government should first be addressing
the low-hanging fruit that everyone can agree on."