Have you installed Google Maps or Angry Birds on your smartphone? Apps for mobile devices – including those two phenomenally popular ones – evidently offer the National Security Agency a gateway into your device, and therefore a great deal of insight about who you are – your age, your sex, your whereabouts, and even whether you’re straight or gay; celibate or promiscuous.
The Guardian released yet another Edward Snowden revelation today that outlines how the NSA (as well as Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ) can use so-called “leaky” mobile apps – programs that transmit user data across the Internet – to monitor user behavior and build databases that harbor very personal information, as well as delineate broad patterns across wide demographics.
From The Guardian:
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 newspaper published a leaked NSA instructional graphic that demonstrates the type of personal information a leaky app can yield – including, according to The New York Times, “address books, buddy lists, phone logs and the geographic data embedded in photos when someone sends a post to the mobile versions of Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn, Twitter and other services.” The program has reportedly been operational since at least 2007.