The National Security Agency and its British equivalent are tapping well-known smartphone apps and games like Rovio’s “Angry Birds” to peer into the vast collection of personal data compiled by the software from its users. Data includes personal details such as age, location, gender and even sexual preferences, reports the New York Times.
Alluding to private documents provided by former CIA employee and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, 30, various reports detail attempts to amass large amounts of personal information from users via cell phone carriers and smartphones by utilizing “leaky” apps. Snowden disclosed documents to the Guardian in late 2012 that gave a detailed (and somewhat disturbing) history of the agency's surveillance on gaming and electronic activities. The NSA documents also stated that British and American intelligence organizations forcibly spied on online activity through Xbox Live, the virtual world “Second Life” and the popular MMO “World of Warcraft” since 2006. 2006. That means the government has been monitoring your eight-hour long “Gears of War” sessions for seven years.
“When a smartphone user opens Angry Birds, the popular game application, and starts slinging birds at chortling green pigs, spies could be lurking in the background to snatch data revealing the player’s location, age, sex and other personal information,” the New York Times reported on Jan. 27. “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 shady efforts were part of an initiative entitled the “mobile surge,” according to a 2011 British document that targeted mobile users, calling iPhones and Android phones “rich resources” of information.
The amount of data aggregated from users wasn’t clear. The documents show the NSA and the British agency regularly collecting information from specific apps, especially older applications. With newer apps and games, like 2009’s “Angry Birds,” the agencies have the ability openly gather personal information from users, but it remains unclear what government spies are considering useful. Certain information is possibly more sensitive – a secret British document from 2012 stated that spies can scrub apps to find data like an individual’s “political alignment” and sexual preference. A 2008 document also stated that “anyone using Google Maps on a smartphone is working in support of a GCHQ system.”
Earlier this January, President Obama acknowledged that the electronic invasion of privacy posed a threat to the civil liberties of Americans and announced major changes to the manner in which the government finds and uses telephone records. “America’s capabilities are unique,” President Obama said in a speech at the Justice Department on Jan. 17. “And the power of new technologies means that there are fewer and fewer technical constraints on what we can do. That places a special obligation on us to ask tough questions about what we should do.”
President Obama also empathized with Americans who may be worrying about electronic personal freedom. “In our rush to respond to a very real and novel set of threats, the risk of government overreach, the possibility that we lose some of our core liberties in pursuit of security also became more pronounced,” he added. “The combination of increased digital information and powerful supercomputers offers intelligence agencies the possibility of sifting through massive amounts of bulk data to identify patterns or pursue leads that may thwart impending threats. It’s a powerful tool. But the government collection and storage of such bulk data also creates a potential for abuse.”
Yes, we as Americans desire a government that cares about the safety of its individual citizens – but at what cost? Is it necessary to usurp a considerable amount of information from unknowing individuals in the name of protection and safety? Do you think the NSA is within its rights to monitor our online and cell phone activity? Leave a comment below.