Spy agencies target data from apps like Angry Birds, Google Maps

Posted at 10:02 AM, Jan 28, 2014
and last updated 2014-01-28 10:03:58-05

Angry Birds. One of the most popular game apps has been downloaded more than one billion times. But the next time you open it up, could the NSA be tracking you?

According to the New York Times, the NSA is trying to collect and store user data from apps.

The Times says the classified program focuses on “so-called leaky apps that spew everything from users’ smartphone identification codes to where they have been that day.”

The N.S.A. and Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters were working together on how to collect and store data from dozens of smartphone apps by 2007, according to the documents, provided by Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor. Since then, the agencies have traded recipes for grabbing location and planning data when a target uses Google Maps, and for vacuuming up address books, buddy lists, telephone logs and the geographic data embedded in photographs when someone sends a post to the mobile versions of Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn, Twitter and other Internet services.

“If you want to track what people do on the internet you have to use apps, I think that’s what is driving the NSA,” says James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “This would need really tight controls to make sure they weren’t taking advantage of it.”

In response to the Times story, the NSA issued a statement, saying in part, “Any implication that NSA’s foreign intelligence collection is focused on the smartphone or social media communications of everyday Americans is not true.”

There was more pushback from the White House.

“We are not interested in the communications of people who are not valid foreign intelligence targets.” said spokesman James Carney.

The report is based on documents said to be leaked by Edward Snowden. In one document – which could not be verified by CNN – the effort is described as a GOLDEN NUGGET.

Information that could be collected includes: location of users, networks to which they connect, websites visited; buddy lists and downloaded documents.

Such information helps mobile advertising companies, for example, create detailed profiles of people based on how they use their mobile device, where they travel, what apps and websites they open, and other factors. Advertising firms might triangulate web shopping data and browsing history to guess whether someone is wealthy or has children.

The N.S.A. and the British agency busily scoop up this data, mining it for new information and comparing it with their lists of intelligence targets.

One secret British document from 2010 suggested that the agencies collected such a huge volume of “cookies” — the digital traces left on a mobile device or a computer when a target visits a website — that classified computers were having trouble storing it all.

“They are gathered in bulk, and are currently our single largest type of events,” the document said.

The two agencies displayed a particular interest in Google Maps, which is accurate to within a few yards or better in some locations. Intelligence agencies collected so much data from the app that “you’ll be able to clone Google’s database” of global searches for directions, according to a top-secret N.S.A. report from 2007.

Read more at the New York Times