Users of smartphone apps and mobile games such as Angry Birds are reportedly leaving their personal information open to secret harvesting by government spies.
The latest disclosure, from documents acquired by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, suggests officials from the National Security Agency and its UK counterpart GCHQ have developed methods to mine and collect personal details such as age, gender and location. In some cases the documents can even record political views and sexual orientation.
State targeting of so-called “leaky apps” was disclosed in documents published on Monday by The New York Times, The Guardian and ProPublica. One slide from a May 2010 NSA presentation, titled “Golden Nugget!”, set out GCHQ’s “perfect scenario”, described as a “target uploading photo to a social media site taken with a mobile device.” The presentation explained that in such a case, the agency could get a “possible image”, email and “a host of other social working data”.
NSA officials told The New York Times: “The NSA does not profile everyday Americans as it carries out its foreign intelligence mission. Because some data of US persons may at times be incidentally collected in NSA's lawful foreign intelligence mission, privacy protections for US persons exist across the entire process.” Similar protections, the agency said, are in place for “innocent foreign citizens.”
In a separate development, NBC News reported that GCHQ demonstrated a pilot program to their US partners in 2012 in which they were able to monitor YouTube in real time and collect addresses from the billions of videos watched daily, as well as some user information, for analysis. At the time the documents were printed, they were also able to spy on Facebook and Twitter. The network said the monitoring program was called "Squeaky Dolphin."
The latest revelations will intensify pressure on President Barack Obama who earlier this month ordered the attorney general and senior intelligence officials to recommend changes by March 28 that would allow the US to identify suspected terrorists' phone calls without the government holding the phone records itself. As of yet there has been no mention of smart phone applications as part of expected reforms that are expected to be implemented as part of his final tenure in The Whitehouse.
Earlier on Monday the Justice Department and leading Internet companies agreed to a compromise with the government that would allow the firms to reveal how often they are ordered to release information about their customers in national security investigations. The deal with Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook and LinkedIn will provide data in general terms. Other technology companies are also expected to participate.