The NSA spying scandal continues with reports from the New York Times and ProPublica suggesting that the American agency and its British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) have been collecting information whenever someone starts up a game of Angry Birds…and possibly a host of other mobile apps.
More after the break.
Most mobile applications collect a large amount of data from the smartphone it is installed on, transmitting location and user information back to a central server. This is ostensibly used for marketing and advertising services, and meant to provide better targeted ads to users. However, this network of information is not secured against government snooping, which results in most of it being used to track the behaviour of people around the world.
Documents provided by Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor, has revealed that the agencies not only target mobile games, but also mobile versions of Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Google Maps. Address books, phone logs, and geo-location information embedded in photo metadata can all be recorded; although the scale of the operation is unknown.
Google Maps is a particular gold mine for the agencies, as it is extremely accurate about the users’ whereabouts. There is no information if any data from Google Now or any other Google services are being mined for data, although the situation does suggest the possibility of this happening.
The aim of the program is to collect data for the NSA and GCHQ’s foreign intelligence operations, which essentially means spying on foreign nationals. One of the secret British documents from 2010 suggests that the agencies have collected so much information that they are having issues storing it all.
Angry Birds was also singled out due to the amount of information it collects about users. The report states that spy agencies are even able to determine the ethnicity, marital status, and sexual orientation of users. One would be hard pressed to imagine why a mobile game would need to know this information in the first place; or why intelligence agencies would be interested in it.