NSA and GCHQ collecting data through popular mobile apps

Documents reveal the agencies piggybacked on collected data from “leaky” apps

Documents say the National Security Agency (NSA) and its United Kingdom counterpart GCHQ have launched a bomb bird, and Angry Birds and other phone apps that transmit private user information are the transmission vehicle.

The Guardian reports that secret documents outline a plan by which the two agencies can rely on “leaky” smartphone apps through piggybacking on the developer’s commercial data collection efforts. This allows the agencies to collect additional data using existing surveillance tools rather than hacking into individual users’ mobile phones.

Through usage agreements, these apps collect a large amount of personal data stroed in a user’s phone, such as age, location, gender, or sometimes even sexual orientation. While this information is communicated to the developer over the Internet, the security agencies can intercept the data, using cable taps or other mobile network monitoring sources.

And although many apps, such as social networking apps for Facebook and Twitter, strip photos of potentially-identifying metadata before publication, The Guardian says that the government still may be able to retrieve private information depending on when in the upload cycle the photos are intercepted.

The NSA outlined its mobile app plans in documents and presentations given to The Guardian by Edward Snowden in May 2013 and released on Jan. 27, 2014. In the notes of one particular presentation image, titled “Golden Nugget,” the NSA notes that it can collect “possible image,” email selector, phone, buddy lists, and “a host of other social working data as well as location.”

This exploitation was a high-priority effort for intelligence agencies, according to the documents, especially in terms of figuring out the physical location of various phones. The NSA cumulatively spent more than $1 billion in its mobile data collection effort.

The release comes after multiple technology companies — including smartphone makers Apple and Samsung — have begun to take a stronger stance against governmental data collection methods. In early December 2013, a group of eight technology companies including Apple, Facebook and Twitter petitioned governments worldwide to stop secretive data collection. And after weaving through appeals courts, some speculate that NSA surveillance could soon be making its way to an eventual U.S. Supreme Court case.


For the latest on the still-burgeoning NSA surveillance scandal, check out these InsideCounsel articles:

Google privacy chief bashes EU data protection reforms

NSA phone surveillance could be headed to the country’s highest courts

Facebook served with complaint for message-scanning tactics

Apple denies aiding NSA data collection from iPhones

Assistant Editor

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Zach Warren

Zach Warren is Assistant Editor of InsideCounsel magazine, where he oversees online content submissions and administers InsideCounsel's enewsletters. Zach specializes in new media and multimedia...

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