GCHQ and the
The data pouring on to 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 the user may be a swinger.
Many smartphone owners will be unaware of the full extent to which this information is being shared across the internet, and even the most sophisticated would be unlikely to realise that all of it is available for the spy agencies to collect.
Dozens of classified documents, provided to the Guardian by the whistleblower
Scooping up information the apps are sending about their users allows the agencies to collect large quantities of mobile phone data from their existing mass surveillance tools - such as cable taps, or from international mobile networks - rather than solely from hacking into individual mobile handsets.
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 spent more than
The disclosures also reveal how much the shift towards smartphone browsing could benefit spy agencies' collection efforts. One slide from a
In practice, most major social media sites, such as
Depending on what profile information a user had supplied, the documents suggested, the agency would be able to collect almost every important detail of a user's life including home country, current location (through geolocation), age, gender, postcode, martial status - options included "single", "married", "divorced", "swinger" and more - income, ethnicity, sexual orientation, education level, and number of children.
The agencies also collected location information in bulk from
A more sophisticated effort relied on intercepting Google Maps queries made on smartphones and using them to collect large volumes of location information. So successful was this effort that one 2008 document noted that "[i]t effectively means that anyone using Google Maps on a smartphone is working in support of a GCHQ system".
The information generated by each app is chosen by its developers, or by the company that delivers an app's adverts. The documents do not detail whether the agencies actually collect the potentially sensitive details some apps are capable of storing or transmitting, but any such information would probably qualify as content rather than metadata.
Data collected from smartphone apps is subject to the same laws and minimisation procedures as all other NSA activity - procedures which
One document held on GCHQ's internal Wikipedia-style guide for staff details what can be collected from different apps. Though it uses Android apps for most of its examples, it suggests much of the same data could be taken from equivalent apps on the iPhone or other platforms.
The GCHQ documents set out examples of what information can be extracted from different ad platforms, using perhaps the most popular mobile phone game of all time, Angry Birds - which has reportedly been downloaded more than 1.7bn times - as a case study.
From some app platforms, relatively limited, but identifying, information such as exact handset model, the unique ID of the handset, software version, and similar details is all that is transmitted. Other apps choose to transmit much more data, meaning the agency could potentially net far more. One mobile ad platform,
"Rovio doesn't have any previous knowledge of this matter, and have not been aware of such activity in third-party advertising networks," said
GCHQ's targeted tools used against individual smartphones are named after characters in the TV series The Smurfs. An ability to make the phone's microphone "hot", to listen in to conversations, is named Nosey Smurf. High-precision geolocation is called Tracker Smurf, power management - an ability to stealthily activate a phone which is apparently turned off - is Dreamy Smurf, and the spyware's self-hiding capabilities are codenamed Paranoid Smurf.
The NSA said its phone interception techniques were only used against valid targets, and were subject to stringent legal safeguards. "The communications of people who are not valid foreign intelligence targets are not of interest to the
"Any implication that NSA's foreign intelligence collection is focused on the smartphone or social media communications of everyday Americans is not true. Moreover, NSA does not profile everyday Americans as it carries out its foreign intelligence mission . . . Because some data of US persons may at times be incidentally collected in NSA's lawful foreign intelligence mission, privacy protections for US persons exist across the entire process concerning the use, handling, retention, and dissemination of data. In addition, NSA actively works to remove extraneous data, to include that of innocent foreign citizens, as early as possible in the process.
"Continuous and selective publication of specific techniques and tools lawfully used by NSA to pursue legitimate foreign intelligence targets is detrimental to the security of
GCHQ declined to comment on any of its specific programmes, but stressed all of its activities were proportional and complied with
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GCHQ documents use the wildly popular Angry Birds as a case study to illustrate the information that can be extracted
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