Jan 28 2014, 2:22am CST | by Forbes
It’s well known (and blithely accepted) that mobile advertising firms collect personal data from mobile apps for marketing purposes. Now it looks like government agencies have been trying to exploit those same programs to collect data too — though how much they have successfully collected is still unclear.
The Guardian and New York Times today cite several secret documents obtained from Edward Snowden which show the NSA and its British counterpart, GCHQ, have been collecting user information from “leaky” smartphone apps such as Angry Birds, the popular game made by Finnish mobile developer Rovio, and Google Maps.
The slideshow concludes that agencies can “geo phones from virtually anywhere,” using GPS signatures from smartphones and apps. By 2007, the NSA and GCHQ were already collaborating on the collection and processing of data from “dozens” of smartphone apps, according to The New York Times. Apple’s App Store was launched a year later, in July 2008.
GCHQ cited popular mobile game Angry Birds as a case study, according to The Guardian which linked to a May 2010 slide show from the agency. One slide states that there are more than 200 third-party location aware apps on the iPhone alone, a number that is orders of magnitude higher today. A marketing director at Rovio told The Guardian they had no knowledge of the GCHQ programs.
One interesting point from today’s reports suggests that spy agencies like GCHQ have (perhaps not surprisingly) been looking to mobile advertising networks as role models in data collection — these are ad platforms like Millennial Media that operate in the background of the app economy, but which are crucial cogs in the marketing system that brands use target people with mobile ads, based increasingly on their location.
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