NSA targeted ‘Angry Birds,’ Google Maps to gather data

Daily News Article   —   Posted on January 30, 2014

(by Geoff Earle, NY Post) WASHINGTON – The NSA and British intelligence made plans to tap popular smartphone apps – including the game “Angry Birds” – to scoop up information about users, classified documents reveal.

angry-birdsThe popular game is one of many “leaky” apps* the spy agencies proposed targeting in an effort to glean personal information from users. [*leaky apps give everything from users’ smartphone identification codes to where they have been that day]

A secret 20-page British report from 2012 “includes the computer code needed for plucking the profiles generated when Android users play ‘Angry Birds,’ ” the news organization ProPublica reported.

ProPublica was one of three outlets that reported on the practice Monday based on documents provided by NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

The spy agencies planned to use the apps, including Google’s popular mapping app, to gather location and other personal data.

“It effectively means that anyone using Google Maps on a smartphone is working in support of a GCHQ system,” one document said, referring to Government Communications Headquarters, Britain’s version of the National Security Agency.

A slide from a 2010 presentation by the NSA reveals information about a project, called Golden Nugget, to extract data from phones.

Notes on the slides mention e-mail information, “buddy lists,” location and other data that could be mined.

Asked about the latest revelation from Snowden, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the Obama administration was focused only on intelligence targets — but did not confirm or deny the use of the tactic.

“We are not interested in the communications of people who are not valid for intelligence targets, and we are not after the information of ordinary Americans,” he said.

But Carney defended the use of high-tech surveillance.

“Terrorists, proliferators, other bad actors use the same communication tools that others use,” he said. …

The Finnish company Rovio, which owns “Angry Birds,” said it didn’t know anything about spying.

The extent of the agencies’ intrusions into the app was not spelled out in the documents.

In a related development Monday, top Internet companies reached an agreement with the feds that would allow them to reveal how often the government orders them to turn over information about customers.

Reprinted here for educational purposes only.  May not be reproduced on other websites without permission from The New York Post.


FAQ about the NSA's interest in Angry Birds and other apps: (from propublica):

What’s new here?

This article reveals how U.S. and British spy agencies have sought to intercept the information transmitted by the games and other apps that users download onto their smartphones. Previous stories have detailed how U.S. and British spies have been intercepting massive quantities of cellphone text messages and gathering the location of cellphones around the world.

How does it work?

Many people don’t realize that when they use a smartphone app – to play a game or listen to music – the app may transmit information back to the app maker and may contain tracking technology placed by advertisers.

The spy agencies call these “leaky apps.” The spies collect information from among others, Google Maps, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Yahoo's Flickr, which in turn can transmit location, buddy lists, browsing history and more, according to a 2010 NSA document.

A 2010 Wall Street Journal survey of 101 iPhone and Android apps showed that the majority of apps were transmitting the phone’s unique ID – a type of serial number assigned to the device – and the user’s location to advertisers.

Since then, advertisers have been building even more detailed profiles of app users.

By using the phone’s identifier, advertisers can often monitor the user’s behavior in multiple apps and when the user browses the Web from their smartphone. Advertisers can tie the information together in a dossier that can include a user’s location, income and preferences such as sexual orientation and political leanings.

How does the NSA get it?

The agencies can pick up much of this information as it travels through private cellphone networks around the world. And because the data includes a tag from your phone, the agencies may have the ability to know who you are.   

Does this mean the NSA is watching me while I play Angry Birds?

It’s not clear. The documents show that spies have collected data from Google’s AdMob, which is largest mobile advertising network and is one of many advertisers whose ads have appeared in Angry Birds.

The agencies say that even if they collect the data, they don’t look at it unless it is relevant to an investigation.

The NSA also says that it “minimizes”– or throws away - the data it intercepts from people who live in the United States. However, its minimization rules allow it to keep information about U.S. residents if it is deemed suspicious or could be relevant to an investigation.

Can I stop leaky apps from sending out data about me?

No, but you can make it harder for advertisers to track you on your phone.

Apple’s latest iPhone software, iOS 7, offers two options to limit ad tracking.

Google’s Android also offers users two options to limit ad tracking.