When you fire up Angry Birds, Google Maps, or a host of other popular smartphone apps, you're opening yourself up to government spies. The NSA and its UK counterpart, the GCHQ, have been actively intercepting the data that "leaky" apps collect from users, according to a new leak from Edward Snowden, published by the Guardian, New York Times and Pro Publica. Depending on the app, the spies can skim data including your location, marital status, sexual orientation, political alignment, ethnicity, and education level.
Angry Birds, which has been criticized in the past for collecting excessive data for advertisers, is listed as a case study on the GCHQ's internal wiki. Another document boasts that anyone using Google Maps is effectively "working in support of a GCHQ system." And an NSA briefing slide describes a target uploading a photo to social media as a "gold nugget," from which their location, contact lists, and "a host of other social working data" can be gleaned. The scale these capabilities has been used on isn't clear, and the NSA responded to the report by saying it doesn't spy on "everyday Americans" or "innocent foreign citizens." Other tidbits from the report:
- The NSA refers to its various smartphone tracking tools as Smurfs. A program that can turn microphones on, allowing spies to eavesdrop on targets, is called "Nosey Smurf," while another enabling it to turn on a powered down phone is called "Dreamy Smurf."
- The NSA and GCHQ have a database of every mobile phone tower in the world.
- According to one GCHQ doc, advertising cookies "are gathered in bulk, and are currently our single largest type of events."