Report: Spy agencies collude to gather personal data from mobile apps

The mobile versions of Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter were cited as targets

Spy agencies including the U.S. National Security Agency have been working together to extract personal information, including location data and address books, from mobile apps as part of a globe-spanning effort to thwart terrorist plots, according to newly disclosed documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Dozens of documents, as reported Monday in The New York Times, the Guardian and ProPublica show that the apps people download onto their smartphones comprise one of many sources of information that intelligence agencies have looked to in recent years as part of their surveillance efforts.

The NSA and Britain's Government Communications Headquarters, were working together on how to collect and store data from dozens of smartphone apps by 2007, according to the reports.

The targeted apps have included the mobile versions of Facebook, Yahoo's Flickr, LinkedIn and Twitter. Since 2007, spy agencies have acted in unison to access data like address books, buddy lists, phone logs and geographic data stored within those apps, the reports said. Location and planning data stored within Google Maps was also cited as a potential surveillance target.

The efforts were part of an initiative known as "the mobile surge," according to a 2011 British document, referring to the troop surges in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Facebook, Yahoo, LinkedIn, Twitter and Google could not be immediately reached for comment.

The amount of data gathered from mobile apps, as well as specific information about how the process works, was not made clear. But the documents show that the NSA and its British counterpart routinely obtain information from certain apps, like those introduced earliest to cellphones, according to the reports.

But spy agencies may also be looking at data from newer apps, like the popular gaming service "Angry Birds." Although it is marketed as a game, "Angry Birds" gathers information about its users such as their location. Spy agencies have plotted how to gather this type of information in the background but it is not clear whether they have targeted these newer apps, the reports said.

Spy agencies' pursuit of mobile networks have been detailed in other reports. But the previously classified documents revealed Monday by the Times, the Guardian and ProPublica, provide new information on the level of interest that the NSA and others might have in smartphones specifically and the apps that run on them.

President Barack Obama recently outlined new changes to limit the surveillance powers of the government, partly with a plan to keep the NSA from holding onto bulk phone records. He did not, however, address the wealth of personal information that could be gleaned from mobile smartphone apps.

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags Internet-based applications and servicesflickrLinkedInsocial networkingmobilesocial mediainternetsearch enginesFacebookmobile applicationsgame softwareGooglegamestwitter

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Zach Miners

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Essentials

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive

Learn more >

Microsoft L5V-00027 Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard Desktop

Learn more >

Mobile

Lexar® JumpDrive® S45 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Exec

HD Pan/Tilt Wi-Fi Camera with Night Vision NC450

Learn more >

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC70 Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

Lexar® JumpDrive® C20c USB Type-C flash drive 

Learn more >

Lexar® Professional 1800x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards 

Learn more >

Budget

Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?