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The 'Mobile Surge' With Angry Birds And Your Mobile Devices

National Security Agency logo You probably love your smart phones. Spy agencies do, too. Yesterday, the Guardian UK reported about surveillance programs targeting mobile video games, including "Angry Birds." Both the National Security Agency (NSA) and Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) spy agencies operate such programs. The New York Times reported the two spy agencies:

"... were working together on how to collect and store data from dozens of smartphone apps by 2007, according to the documents, provided by Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor. Since then, the agencies have traded recipes 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... The efforts were part of an initiative called “the mobile surge,” according to a 2011 British document, an analogy to the troop surges in Iraq and Afghanistan..."

Read this blog post to learn about the metadata with your photographs. So, it's not just people who play Angry Birds. In this extensive government spying, we are all targets.

You are probably thinking to yourself, "That's no big deal. I'm only playing a video game on my smart phone (or tablet). No way would mobile game playing interest a spy agency." Well, they are interested. Big time.

The Guardian UK explained why spy agencies have targeted mobile device usage for data collection:

"Exploiting phone information and location is a high-priority effort for the intelligence agencies, as terrorists and other intelligence targets make substantial use of phones in planning and carrying out their activities, for example by using phones as triggering devices in conflict zones. The NSA has cumulatively spent more than $1bn in its phone targeting efforts."

The two spy agencies have targeted "leaky apps" that collect plenty of your personal information. Why? It's an efficient way to collect a lot of information about a lot of people, without having to target specific individuals' mobile devices. Plus, most consumers are blissfully unaware that their mobile devices collect and report back to the app developers sensitive data about them. And, some apps are more leaky than others. The spy agencies collect users' sensitve personal data as the mobile game apps transmit the information via the wireless telecommunications networks.

The sensitive data your mobile game collects and reports can cover your geolocation (e.g., where you are physically), the time, and descriptive information about your mobile device (e.g., brand, model, screen size, operating system, etc.). If the mobile game accesses your address book, then it collects and transmits information about your contacts (e.g., the people you communicate with regularly) and friends you play the game with. Think of this as metadata about your mobile game playing.

Your mobile device is a goldmine of information which spy agencies are happy to collect from leaky mobile apps:

"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.

The spy agencies have targeted mobile devices because the data consumers have entered into phone and app profiles is very valuable:

"Depending on what profile information a user had supplied, the documents suggested, the agency would be able to collect almost every key detail of a user's life: including home country, current location (through geolocation), age, gender, zip code, martial status – options included "single", "married", "divorced", "swinger" and more – income, ethnicity, sexual orientation, education level, and number of children."

One government document emphasized the success of such data collection:

"... i]t effectively means that anyone using Google Maps on a smartphone is working in support of a GCHQ system."

Should spy agencies collect data from mobile game apps and developers? Is this where you want your government spending your hard-earned taxes?

It is a debate that needs to happen, as it threatens mobile gaming business revenues by US firms. Experts have already estimated that the massive NSA government spying program could cost U.S.-based cloud-services vendors $35 billion in lost revenues. In simpler terms:

Lost revenues by U.S. high-tech companies = lost American jobs = lost tax revenues to U.S. federal, state, and local governments

Would you use mobile games knowing that spy agencies secretly collect this information? Can you trust these agencies to keep such sensitive personal information private, and not share it with other government agencies? Can you trust these agencies when they've been secretive so far? Other agencies (e.g., CIA, DHS, FBI, IRS) already want access to the data collected, and some have gotten it. The potential for abuse is massive.

Freedom includes the choice about what personal information to share, with whom, and when. It is a huge loss of freedoms for consumers to not have control over what personal information is shared, with whom, and when.

Many people would say no to mobile game data collection. If you are not a suspected in a crime and the agency doesn't have a search warrant, then it's a privacy violation. What do you think. If this troubles you, contact your elected officials.


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