Tech Tuesday: Apps leaking data to NSA

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The Guardian has obtained top secret documents from Edward Snowden that show that both the NSA and GCHQ (its UK equivalent) have been developing the ability to siphon personal information from “leaky” smartphone apps such as Google Maps and Angry Birds. In one document, the agency lays out the “perfect scenario” of the type of info it can obtain when a photo taken with a smartphone is uploaded to a social media site.

Yes, your selfie habit comes with a price.

The classified documents show that data from the latest generation of iPhone and Android apps isn’t limited to age, gender, and location. According to the Guardian, the agency might even be able to figure out if you’re a swinger:

One slide from a May 2010 NSA presentation on getting data from smartphones – breathlessly titled “Golden Nugget!” – sets out the agency’s “perfect scenario”: “Target uploading photo to a social media site taken with a mobile device. What can we get?”

The question is answered in the notes to the slide: from that event alone, the agency said it could obtain a “possible image”, email selector, phone, buddy lists, and “a host of other social working data as well as location”.

In practice, most major social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, strip photos of identifying location metadata (known as EXIF data) before publication. However, depending on when this is done during upload, such data may still, briefly, be available for collection by the agencies as it travels across the networks.

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.
It’s all part of the NSA’s dragnet approach. Rather than hack into one person’s handset, the agency uses mass surveillance tools, “such as cable taps, or from international mobile networks,” to “collect large quantities of mobile phone data,” from apps. And the more obsessed you get with the computer in your pocket, the more data the NSA gets.

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