NSA Using Angry Birds and Other Apps to Snatch Personal Data?
OutlineCirculating social media message claims that America's NSA are using popular apps such as 'Angry Birds' to collect personal information from players.
Brief AnalysisCredible reports based on information released by fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden indicate that the NSA and Britain's GCHQ can indeed collect data from popular smartphone game apps, Google Maps and other online applications. The reports suggest that the agencies consider 'leaky' apps such as Angry Birds to be valuable means of collecting information against people it perceives as viable targets. But, the NSA maintains that it only users such data gathering techniques against what it considers valid foreign intelligence targets and has no interest in the smart phone and social media communications of ordinary citizens.
NSA uses apps like 'Angry Birds' to snatch your personal data including player's location, age, sex and other personal information.
According to a message currently circulating social media in the form of an image post, the NSA uses game apps such as 'Angry Birds' to harvest personal data from people. The warning claims that, via this method, the agency can collect location, age, sex and other personal information from players.
The claims in the message are valid. Credible media reports derived from information provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden indicate that both America's NSA and Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) do have the ability to collect personal data recorded by popular games and other online applications such as Google Maps.
A January 2014 New York Times article notes:
When a smartphone user opens Angry Birds, the popular game application, and starts slinging birds at chortling green pigs, spies could be lurking in the background to snatch data revealing the player's location, age, sex and other personal information, according to secret British intelligence documents.An extensive report about the surveillance tactics in The Guardian, concurs, noting:
In their globe-spanning surveillance for terrorism suspects and other targets, the National Security Agency and its British counterpart have been trying to exploit a basic byproduct of modern telecommunications: With each new generation of mobile phone technology, ever greater amounts of personal data pour onto networks where spies can pick it up.
According to dozens of previously undisclosed classified documents, among the most valuable of those unintended intelligence tools are so-called leaky apps that spew everything from the smartphone identification codes of users to where they have been that day.
The National Security Agency and its UK counterpart GCHQ have been developing capabilities to take advantage of 'leaky' smartphone apps, such as the wildly popular Angry Birds game, that transmit users' private information across the internet, according to top secret documents.Of course, the NSA maintains that its phone interception techniques are only ever used against what it considers valid targets. It has stated that it has no interest in the smartphone and social media communications of ordinary Americans who are not considered valid foreign intelligence targets. It also states that it only intercepts information that it is authorized by law to collect.
The data pouring onto communication networks from the new generation of iPhone and Android apps ranges from phone model and screen size to personal details such as age, gender and location. Some apps, the documents state, can share users' most sensitive information such as sexual orientation - and one app recorded in the material even sends specific sexual preferences such as whether or not the user may be a swinger.
Many smartphone owners will be unaware of the full extent this information is being shared across the internet, and even the most sophisticated would be unlikely to realise that all of it is available for the spy agencies to collect.
Dozens of classified documents, provided to the Guardian by whistleblower Edward Snowden and reported in partnership with the New York Times and ProPublica, detail the NSA and GCHQ efforts to piggyback on this commercial data collection for their own purposes.
Scooping up information the apps are sending about their users allows the agencies to collect large quantities of mobile phone data from their existing mass surveillance tools – such as cable taps, or from international mobile networks - rather than solely from hacking into individual mobile handsets.
The increasing amount of personal information that is available for collection by both government agencies and companies is certainly concerning. More and more devices are becoming Internet enabled and there are more and more ways in which your personal information can 'leak' to those who might want to collect it. Short of going off line completely and living in a cave, there is probably not much we can do to stop our headlong rush towards a somewhat scary 'Minority Report' style future.
Nevertheless, common sense would suggest that agencies such as the NSA are not likely to waste valuable time and resources on mining information from ordinary law abiding citizens who like to sling grumpy birds at hapless little pigs in their spare time.
Last updated: February 20, 2014
First published: February 20, 2014
Written by Brett M. Christensen