updated 03:21 pm EST, Mon January 27, 2014
NSA,GCHQ allegedly claimed to collect information on individuals from mobile advertising
Intelligence agencies in the United States and the United Kingdom are allegedly taking advantage of smartphone apps to collect a wealth of information about individuals, in new spying allegations. The National Security Agency (NSA) and the UK's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) are able to use the "leaky" nature of popular mobile phone apps to extract information about an individual, according to new leaked documents.
Classified documents passed by whistleblower Edward Snowden to the Guardian, as well as to the New York Times and ProPublica, detail how apps share personal information openly over the Internet, with the information ranging from the model and screen size of the device, to age, gender, location, and marital status. Called the "mobile surge" in documents, it is also suggested that the NSA and GCHQ could also ascertain the education level, the number of children, the ethnicity, and also the sexual orientation of the intended target.
Slide from NSA document, dated May 2010
Similar to an earlier leak over monitoring via online advertising, Angry Birds is used as an example for how much the agencies can gather from mobile advertising networks, with one special edition of Angry Birds being singled out for using a mobile ad platform that transmits far more than the basic details required for displaying an advertisement. Rovio, the developer of Angry Birds, was unaware of any governmental data extraction from third-party advertising networks.
One set of documents from GCHQ, dating back to May 2010, appear to show a collection of tools that could be used for more intrusive on-device monitoring. Slides for iOS and Android detail the tools, parodying the names of characters from the TV show The Smurfs, which could be installed onto smartphones as spyware, without the user's knowledge. "Tracker Smurf" would provide geolocation data back to GCHQ, "Dreamy Smurf" would allow the remote activation of a device, and "Nosey Smurf" could let the agencies listen in to nearby conversations by activating the microphone.
Slide from GCHQ document showing 'Smurf' tools, dated May 2010
The continuing leaks over the way the NSA and other intelligence agencies collect and use the data relating to individuals forced President Barack Obama to defend the use of such techniques, at the same time as outlining a number of reforms to the activities. Rather than banning specific practices, the reforms included the need for collected data to be held by a third party instead of the government, more stringent checks before data can be accessed, and the need for advocates to be present when requests are made to the FISA Court.
It also appears that the intelligence agencies could come under new pressure, with Snowden suggesting there are more leaks to be released in the future. In an interview with ARD TV, Snowden claims the NSA's surveillance extends further than national security and into the realm of industrial espionage, reports Reuters. After citing Siemens as a target, Snowdem revealed "If there's information at Siemens that's beneficial to US national interests - even if it doesn't have anything to do with national security - then they'll take that information nevertheless." Snowden also claimed he no longer held any documents on NSA activities, with all the information now possessed by a number of journalists, and that he had no control over the future publication of such information.