Angry Birds as a Tool for Government Spies

Angry Birds

Government spies are using popular apps such as Angry Birds as tools to steal players’ information, such as age, sex and location, according to British intelligence documents.  The previously secret documents refer to “leaky apps” that can be accessed by spies looking for information on a certain user.

The documents, made public by Edward Snowden, claim that by 2007, both the National Security Agency (NSA) and Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters worked in sync to amass and catalog data collected from dozens of apps.  Both agencies have collaborated since then on methods to use Google Maps to retrieve location and route information of its targets as well as to collect embedded data in photographs that are shared to social networks via mobile phones.  Information that can be gained from photographs include telephone logs, geographic data, buddy lists and address books.

Although it has been reported previously that the NSA and Britain’s agency have wanted to target mobile networks to glean information, the new documents are more detailed in terms of the use of smartphones and apps.  Because both agencies have been collecting data from text messages and downloads, a system to retrieve data from apps for storage is already in place.

Although the documents reveal the NSA and Britain’s agency have made it a practice to collect data from certain apps, the quantity and specific information gleaned from these efforts are unclear.  The apps most used for this purpose are those that were the first to be used on mobile phones.  New apps like Angry Birds are vulnerable to being used as a tool for government spies, but it is not known whether the app has yet been compromised for information or not. The scope of the information that can be discovered via this method includes the user’s political leanings and sexual preference.  There is no mention in the documents of the number of users affected or their nationality.

The NSA responded to the release of the report by reassuring the public that the agency does not target “everyday Americans” in its data collection practices, but does admit that some user data may be collected “incidentally.”  The agency also reassured Americans that the process of data collection includes privacy measures.  The British agency did not comment on the documents released today, but did say that they were in full compliance with British law.

Rovio Entertainment, the creators of the Angry Birds app, admit to collecting data such as the location of players for the purposes of supplying it to mobile advertisers, but say they do abide by some rules such as not knowingly collecting “personal information from children under 13 years of age.” Angry Birds has been downloaded worldwide more than 1.7 billion times.

The release of the British intelligence documents are likely to draw attention to the amount of data that apps such as Angry Birds collect, which could potentially lead to consumer backlash and pressure app creators to collect less personal information and to adopt stricter privacy policies.

This specific source of information was not a part of the new restrictions announced by President Obama this month, which limit the information that can be viewed from phone calls only. The agencies cite that smartphone tracking helped them disrupt an Al Qaeda bomb plot in 2007, and also led to the arrests of drug cartel hit men who were involved in the 2010 murder of an American Consulate employee in Mexico.

In addition, the documents released indicate that due to the sheer volume of data being collected, the agencies often seem overwhelmed and unsure of how to handle it, which is no surprise when considering that there are an estimated one billion smartphones in use worldwide, which can all be exploited as a tool for government spies by simply downloading an app like Angry Birds.

By Jennifer Pfalz


New York Times
NBC News
Information Week

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