The Guardian and New York Times revealed today that the National Security Agency and its UK counterpart, GCHQ, have been working to take advantage of “leaky” smartphone apps, such as the popular Angry Birds game (which according to the report, was used as a “case study” in smartphone surveillance). According to top-secret documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden, the apps transmit users’ private data across the Internet which the NSA took steps to “piggyback on” to collect for its own purposes. Examples of data leaked from the apps includes personal details such as age, gender, marital status, income, education level, number of children, location, address, buddy list, and even sexual orientation (yes, one app recorded and transmitted personal details about sexual preferences).
The newly-released documents offer far more details of the NSA’s ambitions for smartphones and the apps that run on them. As part of an initiative called “the mobile surge”, examples of how the NSA retrieves the data included via EXIF data embedded in personal photos and through interception of data from third-party ad networks (e.g. Millennial Media, who partners with the makers of popular mobile games such as Angry Birds, Farmville, and Call of Duty).
Rovio, creators of the popular Angry Birds game, was quick to denounce the news.
“Rovio doesn’t have any previous knowledge of this matter, and have not been aware of such activity in 3rd party advertising networks.”
The newly-released documents also revealed:
“In addition to apps such as video games, the two spy agencies delved deeply into the information from Google Maps. One top-secret NSA report from 2007 said that so much data was collected from the app that agents would “be able to clone Google’s database” of global searches for directions.”
Both news outlets pointed out that details of the smartphone eavesdropping activities are unknown.
“The scale and the specifics of the data haul are not clear. The documents show that the N.S.A. and the British agency routinely obtain information from certain apps, particularly those introduced earliest to cellphones. With some newer apps, including Angry Birds, the agencies have a similar ability, the documents show, but they do not make explicit whether the spies have put that into practice.”