The PJ Tatler

How the NSA Has Turned Your Angry Birds Addiction Against You

Technology is a funny thing. Years ago, we dreamed of having video phones so we could see the people we’re talking to. The Jetsons saw the obvious problem with this and included a robot that would doll us up just before we answered our phones.

Or we would pop on a “morning mask.”

No mask can protect us from what the NSA and the UK’s GCHQ have been up to. They have turned our technology including our favorite apps against us.

The National Security Agency and its UK counterpart GCHQ have been developing capabilities to take advantage of “leaky” smartphone apps, such as the wildly popular Angry Birds game, that transmit users’ private information across the internet, according to top secret documents.

The data pouring onto communication networks from the new generation of iPhone and Android apps ranges from phone model and screen size to personal details such as age, gender and location. Some apps, the documents state, can share users’ most sensitive information such as sexual orientation – and one app recorded in the material even sends specific sexual preferences such as whether or not the user may be a swinger.

One slide from a May 2010 NSA presentation on getting data from smartphones – breathlessly titled “Golden Nugget!” – sets out the agency’s “perfect scenario”: “Target uploading photo to a social media site taken with a mobile device. What can we get?”

The question is answered in the notes to the slide: from that event alone, the agency said it could obtain a “possible image”, email selector, phone, buddy lists, and “a host of other social working data as well as location”.

In practice, most major social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, strip photos of identifying location metadata (known as EXIF data) before publication. However, depending on when this is done during upload, such data may still, briefly, be available for collection by the agencies as it travels across the networks.

All this, and most of us don’t even use the video phone function on these personal tracking devices.

NSA stresses that it’s only collecting data on “legitimate targets.”