The National Security Agency and its British counterpart are working on how to use "leaky" smartphone apps, such as Angry Birds and Google Maps, to collect personal data and location information.
The disclosure was detailed late Monday by The Guardian, The New York Times, and ProPublica, all of which cited information provided to them by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Apparently the apps are viewed as ripe sources of personal information that can be mined for such things as age, gender, income, and location. All of that information can be stolen over the internet without the knowledge of the smartphone user, according to the publications, who worked in partnership to report on the information provided by Snowden.
According to the Times story posted Monday, being able to access such information is considered a high-priority for the NSA and the British Government Communications Headquarters
(GCHQ). The two intelligence gathering operations have been working together to access information through apps since 2007 because cellphones are commonly used by terrorist groups to organize attacks and to trigger explosive devices, the Times reported.
According to The Guardian, the NSA has spent $1 billion
so far on using smartphones for data collection.
In one NSA document provided to the publications by Snowden, the agency outline in May of 2010 what kind of information it could gather from smartphone users who upload photos on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and LinkedIn. The information, included everything from a "possible image" to email addresses, phone numbers, telephone logs, buddy lists, and "a host of other social working data as well as location."
Most social media companies strip this information from photos once they are uploaded to their websites, but there is a brief moment before this occurs when intelligence agencies are able to grab the data, which can vary based on what a user has supplied. When it comes to apps, what's available depends on what information app developers decide to have the apps generate, The Guardian noted in its report.
Besides apps and social media sites, the NSA and GCHQ have also made efforts to intercept location information from Google Maps users, The Guardian also reported.
The GCHQ was so successful in gathering data information via Google Maps that the British intelligence agency noted in 2008 that "it effectively means that anyone using Google Maps on a smartphone is working in support of a GCHQ system."
While the documents detail the capabilities of the NSA and GCHQ to collect data from apps, they do not indicate how widespread the process is or where the data is stored. The Times noted, however, that once collected the information is then compared to lists of national security targets.
"NSA does not profile everyday Americans as it carries out its foreign intelligence mission," the NSA told the Times. "Because some data of U.S. persons may at times be incidentally collected in NSA's lawful foreign intelligence mission, privacy protections for U.S. persons exist across the entire process."
Earlier this month, President Barack Obama announced a list of reforms he wants to make to NSA surveillance
programs, but he did not address the intelligence agency's use of smartphone apps to mine for personal information.
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