NSA uses Angry Birds and other smartphone apps to collect user data

January 27, 2014
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Just when you thought that all the Angry Birds ever did was fling themselves from slingshots in an effort to get revenge on them bad piggies, we learn that they can also drive go-carts. Think that’s impressive? Bet you didn’t know that they are also experts in espionage.

Citing new documents provided by Edward Snowden, several major publications have revealed that the NSA and the British GCHQ are able to collect personal data from so-called ‘leaky’ apps that use photo sharing, location sharing, and other special permissions. Some of the apps specifically mentioned in leaked documents from Snowden include social network apps like Twitter and Facebook, and navigational apps like Google Maps. On a somewhat surprising note, games such as Angry Birds are also targeted by these agencies.

While the extent of the information varies depending on the app, some of the leaked information reportedly includes things like age, gender, marital status and sexual orientation.

Now keep in mind that these apps are not designed with the intent of spying and instead the permissions are generally for improving the quality and services of the apps, or for delivering ads. In fact, Angry Bird’s creator Rovio has already issued a statement that they are unaware of any spying going on through the use of their programs.

Nonetheless, these apps still prove to be easy targets for the NSA and GCHQ. So what kind of information are these organizations able to get from monitoring smartphone apps? While the extent of the information varies depending on the app, some of the leaked information reportedly includes things like age, gender, marital status and sexual orientation.

Reportedly, the NSA and GCHQ have been trading methods (or as NY Times calls it, ‘recipes’) for grabbing location and planning data from specific apps and address books since as early as 2007. As smartphones have become more commonplace, the amount of data being gleaned has increased dramatically.

While the documents make it pretty clear that the NSA and GCHQ are technically able to piece together a pretty accurate profile of targeted users by collecting bits and pieces of data from various apps, it’s unclear how actively these methods are used and what groups are targeted.

For the NSA’s part, they have released a statement that doesn’t directly deny that they are capable of collecting information from smartphone apps, but they do claim that they do not use any information they collect to spy on “everyday Americans”.

Any implication that NSA’s foreign intelligence collection is focused on the smartphone or social media communications of everyday Americans is not true. … We collect only those communications that we are authorized by law to collect for valid foreign intelligence and counterintelligence purposes – regardless of the technical means used by the targets.

If you’re looking for a more in-depth look at the newly leaked documents and for more information on how deep the rabbit hole goes, be sure to check out the detailed reports from NY Times, ProPublica, and the Guardian.

What do you think about this latest NSA-related report? Surprised or not? Let us know what you think in the comments below.

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