US, Britain use smartphone apps to collect data

Updated: 2014-01-28 12:55


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WASHINGTON - US and British spy agencies are tapping popular smartphone apps such as Angry Birds and Google Maps to collect users' personal information including location, age, sex and even sexual orientation, the New York Times reported Monday.

Citing previously undisclosed classified documents provided by former US defense contractor Edward Snowden, the report said the National Security Agency (NSA) and its British counterpart, Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), were working together on how to collect and store data from "leaky" smartphone apps by 2007.

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The agencies have traded methods for grabbing location and planning data when a target uses Google Maps, and for vacuuming up address books, buddy lists, phone logs and the geographic data embedded in photos when someone sends a post to the mobile versions of Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn, Twitter and other services, said the newspaper.

Although the scale and the specifics of the data haul are not clear, the agencies routinely obtain information from certain apps, particularly some of those introduced earliest to cellphones, and also have a similar capability for some newer apps, including Angry Birds, the paper added.

Angry Birds, created by Rovio Entertainment of Finland, has been downloaded more than a billion times. The company drew public criticism in 2012 when researchers claimed that the app was tracking users' locations and gathering other data and passing it to mobile ad companies.

Rovio, the maker of Angry Birds, told British newspaper The Guardian that it had no knowledge of any NSA or GCHQ programs looking to extract data from its apps users.

"Rovio doesn't have any previous knowledge of this matter, and has not been aware of such activity in third party advertising networks," said Saara Bergstrom, Rovio's VP of marketing and communications. "Nor do we have any involvement with the organizations you mentioned (NSA and GCHQ)."

Some personal data could be particularly sensitive, and a secret 2012 British intelligence document said spies can scrub smartphone apps that contain details like a user's "political alignment" and sexual orientation, according to the New York Times report.

Both NSA and GCHQ displayed a particular interest in Google Maps, which is accurate to within a few yards or better in some locations.

The agencies collected so much data from the app that "you'll be able to clone Google's database" of global searches for directions, a 2007 NSA report was quoted as saying, while a 2008 GCHQ said "it effectively means that anyone using Google Maps on a smartphone is working in support of a GCHQ system."

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the NSA was only interested in those considered a threat to the US, including " terrorists, proliferators, other bad actors."

"To the extent that the NSA collects information, it is focused on valid foreign intelligence targets and not the information of ordinary Americans," Carney said.