Moral Low Ground

Civil Liberties

Snowden: NSA Using “Angry Birds”, Google Maps, Other ‘Leaky Apps’, to Collect User Data

NSA Angry Birds

Documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden have revealed that the National Security Agency and its British counterpart have been developing capabilities to exploit ‘leaky’ smartphone apps like the popular ‘Angry Birds’ game to collect user data.

The Guardian reports Snowden has provided the paper with dozens of classified documents detailing how the NSA and British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) have been secretly collecting massive amounts of user data, including ages, locations, address books and much more, from smartphone applications like Angry Birds, Google Maps and apps with photo- and location-sharing capabilities such as Facebook, Twitter and Flickr.

The US and UK spy agencies have been working on their joint mobile app initiative since 2007, the year the NSA budget increased from $204 million to $767 million, according to CNET.

In addition to user age and location, the data being collected by the spy agencies reportedly includes gender, ethnicity, income, education level, number of children and even sexual orientation and sexual fetishes, according to the Guardian. Many smartphone users are oblivious about the extent to which such information is being shared across the Internet.

The rapid growth of the smartphone and app markets mean increasing amounts of data is flowing from those devices and potentially into the hands of spy agencies. According to the newly-leaked documents, each time a user performs an Android software update, some 500 lines of collectible data is uploaded to the network. Indeed, an internal NSA document calls iPhone and Android devices “gold nuggets” of data resources.

Collecting information that smartphone apps are sending about their users allows the NSA and GCHQ to amass massive amounts of data using existing mass surveillance tools without having to rely exclusively on tapping or hacking into individual mobile devices. US and allied spy agencies are very interested in exploiting mobile data because terrorism suspects and other targets often use cell phones and other mobile devices to plot and execute attacks and other activities. To this end, the NSA has spent more than $1 billion targeting mobile devices.

Last September, Snowden revealed that the NSA was spying on the social media profiles of an unknown number of users. The agency has also infiltrated popular online gaming and social media communities such as World of Warcraft and Second Life as part of its global surveillance program of Americans and foreign nationals that has targeted billions of phone and electronic records, including those of close allies and other world leaderscorporations and even the Pope.

President Barack Obama has repeatedly defended NSA spying, even on Americans (which has been declared likely unconstitutional by a federal judge), as a vital tool in the War on Terror, although he has also acknowledged that the agency has engaged in “overcollection” of data and has promised modest reforms.

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