Spies in Britain and the US have been harvesting data from popular smartphone and tablet apps according to new revelations that come from documents leaked by ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Those documents suggest that games, social networking apps and mapping tools are providing the intelligence community with location data and information about users’ age, sexual orientation and political affiliations.
Reports in the Guardian, the New York Times and ProPublica suggest that the joint spying programme “effectively means that anyone using Google Maps on a smartphone is working in support of a GCHQ system.”
A statement from the NSA said data coming from non-valid foreign intelligence targets was of no interest, adding that,
“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 authorised by law to collect for valid foreign intelligence and counterintelligence purposes – regardless of the technical means used by the targets.”
GCHQ were somewhat more tight-lipped, saying that it did not comment on matters of intelligence. Ther organisation did, however, say that its activities were “authorised, necessary and proportionate.”
Besides Angry Birds, the documents also mentioned Flickr and Flixster as well as various applications that connect to Facebook, all of which were targeted by the NSA in its search for a “golden nugget” – a scenario which would see the spy agency acquire a full house of data, including a list of websites visited, friends lists, downloads and networks the device had connected to.
Whilst individual developers are responsible for the data collected by their apps there is no suggestion of tacit collusion between firms and the security services.
This episode does, however, act as a stark reminder that none of our data is truly safe from those determined to gain access to it.
As ever, if you value your privacy then you need to take a degree of personal responsibility and think hard before sharing anything over a medium that can be accessed by third parties.