It seems that the National Security Agency (NSA) and the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ)have become extremely inventive in their unending search for personal information.
Top secret documents have revealed that Smartphone apps transmitting user details across the internet are now providing a wealth of sensitive information for spy agencies. Even games, such as the immensely popular "Angry Birds," are being used as tools to provide data.
Rovio, the maker of Angry Birds, said it had no knowledge of any NSA or GCHQ programs looking to extract data from its apps users.
"Rovio doesn’t have any previous knowledge of this matter, and have not been aware of such activity in 3rd party advertising networks," stated Saara Bergström, Rovio’s VP of marketing and communications.
An NSA presentation from May 2010 illustrated how the spy agencies have put together a targeted attack on smartphones: a quotation from one of their training slides – entitled "Golden Nugget" – reads thus:
"Target uploading photo to a social media site taken with a mobile device. What can we get?"
This question was then answered below with the potential information to be obtained, listed as "possible image", email selector, phone, buddy lists, and "a host of other social working data as well as location".
The prospective haul of data from phone apps is astounding, but most users will be blissfully unaware that when they use apps they are unwittingly providing spy agencies with their most sensitive information, including age, gender, location and, in some cases, even their sexual preferences.
A large number of classified documents, provided to the Guardian by whistleblower Edward Snowden and reported in partnership with the New York Times and ProPublica, outlined how the NSA and GCHQ have actively exploited the potential of phone apps for their own purposes.Documents from GCHQ outlined the type of data that could be supplied by various platforms: some app platforms are fairly limited but can still generate details such as handset ID and version which can be more effective locators than conventional web-tracking cookies, while others, particularly Millennial Media, produce a rich stream of personal details for agencies to collate.
Location devices such as Google Maps apparently yield even more information, as large quantities of data can be obtained by intercepting Google Maps searches on smartphones. In fact, one document from 2008 stated: "anyone using Google Maps on a smartphone is working in support of a GCHQ system."
Cookie data is also a well-used vehicle for gleaning information, and a 2010 GCHQ document revealed that it provided such copious amounts that spy agencies struggled to store it.
"They are gathered in bulk, and are currently our single largest type of events," the document stated.
It has already been well-documented that social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter are routinely screened for data, and depending on the level of detail each user provides in their profile, can reveal many important aspects of their lives including including home country, current location (through geolocation), age, gender, zip code, martial status – options included "single", "married", "divorced", "swinger" and more – income, ethnicity, sexual orientation, education level, and number of children.
The secret documents do not make it clear whether the agencies do in fact collect all of the available informationl, neither do they clarify how routinely data is collated, or who the possible targets are, though the NSA declared that it only uses such invasive trawling methods against "valid foreign intelligence targets." It must be remembered that data collected from smartphone apps is subject to the same laws and minimisation procedures as all other NSA activity, though these procedures may be subject to reform.
"The communications of people who are not valid foreign intelligence targets are not of interest to the National Security Agency," said a spokeswoman in a statement. "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. Because some data of US persons may at times be incidentally collected in NSA’s lawful foreign intelligence mission, privacy protections for US persons exist across the entire process concerning the use, handling, retention, and dissemination of data.
" In addition, NSA actively works to remove extraneous data, to include that of innocent foreign citizens, as early as possible in the process. Continuous and selective publication of specific techniques and tools lawfully used by NSA to pursue legitimate foreign intelligence targets is detrimental to the security of the United States and our allies – and places at risk those we are sworn to protect."
GCHQ declined to comment on any of its specific programs, but stressed all of its activities were proportional and complied with UK law.
"It is a longstanding policy that we do not comment on intelligence matters," said a spokesman. "Furthermore, all of GCHQ’s work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework that ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight, including from the Secretary of State, the Interception and Intelligence Services Commissioners and the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. All our operational processes rigorously support this position."
Despite these apparent reassurances, a recent poll taken by the Washington Post suggests that there is a growing level of unease amongst the American public, with 69% of citizens expressing concern about the use and storage of personal information by technology companies such as Google. We may never know the full extent of data collection and utilisation by the spy agencies, as all activities will be hidden behind the smokescreen of "national security," but it may be worth remembering that, when we use our favourite phone app, "Big Brother" may well be watching…