The National Security Agency and its British equivalent are working to exploit "leaky" smartphone apps such as the insanely popular Angry Birds games that share user data over the Internet, according to new reports by major publications.
Newly divulged classified documents, provided by Edward Snowden and revealed just a day before President Obama's State of the Union address, show that the NSA has been working with Britain's Government Communications Headquarters since as far back as 2007 to develop capabilities to extract data from smartphone app use. Siphoning location information from Google Maps or personal data from address books and mobile posts on social networks are a few of the examples mentioned as part of a bilateral agency initiative known as "the mobile surge."
The opening paragraphs of The New York Times' report paint a vivid picture:
When a smartphone user opens Angry Birds, the popular game application, and starts slinging birds at chortling green pigs, spy agencies have plotted how to lurk in the background to snatch data revealing the player's location, age, sex, and other personal information, according to secret British intelligence documents.
In their globe-spanning surveillance for terrorism suspects and other targets, the National Security Agency and its British counterpart have been trying to exploit a basic byproduct of modern telecommunications: With each new generation of mobile phone technology, ever greater amounts of personal data pour onto networks where spies can pick it up.
Though the size and scope of the program remains unclear, NSA analysts are again portrayed to be oozing with enthusiasm at their surveillance might. One leaked slide titled "Golden Nugget!" describes the "perfect scenario" of a "target uploading [a] photo to a social media site taken with a mobile device" and then asking, "What can we get?"
This isn't the first time that NSA documents have shown the agency taking a keen interest in online gaming habits. Last year, reports surfaced that the NSA and Britain's GCHQ infiltrate virtual realities of online video games, such as Second Life, in an effort to uncover and foil possible terrorist plots. Agents had to convince their bosses they weren't just playing the immersive games on the clock. World of Warcraft players were, unsurprisingly, not pleased.
The Angry Birds franchise has enjoyed more than 2 billion downloads.