NSA Could Be Spying On You While You Play Angry Birds

NSA and GCHQ exploit weaknesses in "leaky" apps, like Angry Birds, to collect information on terrorists.

The NSA has been under fire in the last six months for using large sweeps of cell phone data to "track terrorists." PRISM and other similar programs ignite people's anger on the subject of their privacy. However, newly published slides from the NSA (as well as its UK counterpart GCHQ) shows that they might be finding a new way to collect data: Angry Birds

Angry Birds, in this case, is used as an example of what the industry calls "leaky" smartphone applications. In case you haven't read the large terms and conditions document that comes with signing up for an app, these apps are transmitting data over the internet, and it's not terribly secure. 

The Guardian sums it up well: 

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 - one app recorded in the material even sends specific sexual preferences such as whether or not the user may be a swinger.

Documents leaked by Edward Snowden show attempts by the NSA and GCHQ to "piggyback" on this leaked consumer data. The NSA has evidently spent "more than $1 billion in its phone targeting efforts," and believes that cell phones are a common avenue for terrorist communication and planning. 

How insecure is your data? Here's an example slide from the NSA presentation entitled "Golden Nugget:" 

golden nugget


So what can the NSA get? Depending on the application, quite a bit. They can get access to the photo itself, as well as location, "buddy lists," and other metadata. Google Maps queries were also an avenue for data collection, leading to a 2008 document stating "anyone using Google Maps on a smartphone is working in support of a GCHQ system." 

What does this have to do with Angry Birds? The GCHQ used the game, which was downloaded 1.7 billion times, as a case study to figure out how leaky such common applications could be.  In 2012, the game company is criticized for its widespread data collection, and the manner in which is transmitted the data to ad companies.

It effectively means that anyone using Google Maps on a smartphone is working in support of a GCHQ system.

Rovio, the maker of Angry Birds, has stated that it had no knowledge of intelligence gathering attempts being made by either the NSA or GCHQ. 

Tracking cookies, incredibly common on most sites, are also apparently a focus for these security agencies to use against "valid foreign intelligence targets." This metadata can occasionally include information such as location and other private details. 

President Obama spoke earlier this month about restricting the NSA's reach and its collection of metadata, but this latest information goes beyond the bounds of what was known about the NSA's data collection. 

Published Jan. 27th 2014
View Comments
  • Caden Moniz
    Featured Correspondent
    The NSA is always watching us-whether it's playing a smartphone game or browsing the web. It's extremely unfortunate, and we can't escape it.
  • Fathoms_4209
    Featured Columnist
    Know why I like my SNES?

    I turn it on and nobody nowhere can ever know what I'm playing. Impossible. THAT'S what I most miss.
  • Caden Moniz
    Featured Correspondent
    Same here. I absolutely love my SNES.
  • Coatedpolecat
    Featured Correspondent
    Angry Birds huh? No other places to look, formulated or not. Maybe hone in on something that isn't free to play, or a mass craze
  • Venisia Gonzalez
    Featured Columnist
    At least the title of the game is "fitting" so to speak lol.
  • Amanda Wallace
    Former Staff Editor
    They were using it as a case study because everyone has it, I imagine. There are other apps that are undoubtedly less secure.
  • Rothalack
    Master O' Bugs
    I still find it funny that people are shocked by this. Ever since that day in September, we have been watched. And you know what, well before that too. It just took that one event to put it over the edge and give the gov't reason to put in place things to spy on us. I also still think it's funny that people were freaking out over the Xbox One kinect 2.0 and the security that comes along with that. If people think they weren't already being watched, they are just oblivious.

    I think another misconception is people think that someone is sitting down and sifting through tons of private messages when in reality they have created a huge algorithm that constantly monitors communications looking for keywords. Not someone actually sitting there. When a communication gets flagged, then yes someone is going to look into it.

    Don't take this as me supporting the idea of NSA spying, just take it as we should all know and expect to be watched until the US gov't is overthrown.
  • Venisia Gonzalez
    Featured Columnist
    I couldn't agree with you more on that. The municipalities have cameras at traffic lights, cameras on highways, etc. We've always been watched, it just seems people were a bit too naive.
  • Amanda Wallace
    Former Staff Editor
    I'm not shocked at all. But I come from a generation that pretty much expects my privacy to be taken and misused/etc.

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