The NSA Is Trying to Spy on You When You Play Angry Birds

New documents show that even our favorite pocket time-waster may not be safe from the agency’s surveillance capabilities.

A visitor walks through Shanghai's first Angry Birds Activity Park at Tongji University in Shanghai on October 31, 2012.  
National Journal
Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
Jan. 27, 2014, 8:16 a.m.

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.

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