When a smartphone user opens Angry Birds, the popular game application, and starts slinging birds at chortling green pigs, spy agencies have plotted how to lurk in the background to snatch data revealing the player's location, age, sex and other personal information, according to secret British intelligence documents.
In their globe-spanning surveillance for terrorism suspects and other targets, the
According to dozens of previously undisclosed classified documents, among the most valuable of those unintended intelligence tools are so-called leaky apps that spew everything from users' smartphone identification codes to where they have been that day.
The NSA and
The eavesdroppers' pursuit of mobile networks has been outlined in earlier reports, but the secret documents, shared by The New York Times, The Guardian and ProPublica, offer far more details of their ambitions for smartphones and the apps that run on them. The efforts were part of an initiative called "the mobile surge," according to a 2011 British document, an analogy to the troop surges in
The scale and the specifics of the data haul are not clear. The documents show that the NSA and the British agency routinely obtain information from certain apps, particularly some of those introduced earliest to cellphones. With some newer apps, including Angry Birds, the agencies have a similar capability, the documents show, but they do not make explicit whether the spies have put that into practice. Some personal data, developed in profiles by advertising companies, could be particularly sensitive: A secret 2012 British intelligence document says that spies can scrub smartphone apps that contain details like a user's "political alignment" and sexual orientation.
And while he expressed concern about advertising companies that collect information on people to send tailored ads to their mobile phones, he offered no hint that U.S. spies routinely seize that data. Nothing in the secret reports indicates that the companies cooperate with the spy agencies to share the information; the topic is not addressed.
The agencies have long been intercepting text messages and metadata from nearly every segment of the mobile network - and, more recently, computer traffic running on Internet pipelines. Because those same networks carry the rush of data from leaky apps, the agencies have a ready-made way to collect and store this new resource. The documents do not address how many users might be affected, whether they include Americans, or how often, with so much information collected automatically, analysts would see personal data.
"NSA does not profile everyday Americans as it carries out its foreign intelligence mission," the agency said in a written response to questions about the program. "Because some data of U.S. persons may at times be incidentally collected in NSA's lawful foreign intelligence mission, privacy protections for U.S. persons exist across the entire process." Similar protections, the agency said, are in place for "innocent foreign citizens."
The British spy agency declined to comment on any specific program but said all its activities complied with British law.
Smartphones almost seem to make things too easy. Functioning as phones - making calls and sending texts - and as computers - surfing the Web and sending emails - they generate and also rely on data. One secret report shows that just by updating Android software, a user sent more than 500 lines of data about the phone's history and use onto the network.
Such information helps mobile ad companies, for example, create detailed profiles of people based on how they use their mobile device, where they travel, what apps and websites they open, and other factors. Advertising firms might triangulate Web shopping data and browsing history to guess whether someone is wealthy or has children, for example.
The NSA and the British agency busily scoop up this data, mining it for new information and comparing it with their lists of intelligence targets.
One secret 2010 British document suggests that the agencies collect such a huge volume of "cookies" - the digital traces left on a mobile device or a computer when a target visits a website - that classified computers were having trouble storing it all.
"They are gathered in bulk and are currently our single largest type of events," the document says.
The two agencies displayed a particular interest in Google Maps, which is accurate to within a few yards or better in some locations. Intelligence agencies collect so much data from the app that "you'll be able to clone
"It effectively means that anyone using Google Maps on a smartphone is working in support" of
In another example, a secret 20-page British report dated 2012 includes the computer code needed for plucking the profiles generated when Android users play Angry Birds. The app was created by
Rovio drew public criticism in 2012 when researchers claimed that the app was tracking users' locations and gathering other data and passing it to mobile ad companies. In a statement on its website, Rovio says that it may collect its users' personal data, but that it abides by some restrictions. For example, the statement says, "Rovio does not knowingly collect personal information from children under 13 years of age."
The secret report noted that the profiles vary depending on which of the ad companies - including Burstly and Google's ad services, two of the largest online advertising businesses - compiles them. Most profiles contain a string of characters that identifies the phone, along with basic data on the user like age, sex and location. One profile notes whether the user is currently listening to music or making a call, and another has an entry for household income.
The spy agencies have had occasional success - at least by their own reckoning - when they start with something closer to a traditional investigative tip or lead. The spies say that tracking smartphone traffic helped break up a bomb plot by
But the data, whose volume is soaring as mobile devices have begun to dominate the technological landscape, is a crushing amount of information for the spies to sift through. As smartphone data builds up in NSA and British databases, the agencies sometimes seem a bit at a loss on what to do with it all, the documents show.
"Leaky Apps" spew everything from users' smartphone identification codes to where they have been that day.