President Barack Obama’s speech earlier this month outlined modest new limitations on the National Security Agency’s use of data it harvests from Americans’ phone calls, but he didn’t address what turns out to be one of the agency’s biggest sources of information: smartphone apps.
Smartphone applications like Google Maps, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and even games like Angry Birds provide intelligence agencies with riches of data, including location tracking, address books, buddy lists and phone logs, according to documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and provided to the Guardian, the New York Times ProPublica.
“They are gathered in bulk, and are currently our single largest type of events,” says one 2010 document from the NSA’s British counterpart, the G.C.H.Q., regarding the “cookies” that computers, including mobile devices, pick up from websites as they browse the Internet.
Google Maps is a particularly rich seam for data miners in British and U.S. intelligence, the documents say.
“It effectively means that anyone using Google Maps on a smartphone is working in support of a G.C.H.Q. system,” says a secret 2008 document from the British agency.
According to a classified Canadian analysis written around 2007 cited by the New York Times, the NSA quadrupled the program’s budget that year, from $204 million to $767 million.
“N.S.A. does not profile everyday Americans as it carries out its foreign intelligence mission,” the agency said in a written response to the Times. “Because some data of U.S. persons may at times be incidentally collected in N.S.A.’s lawful foreign intelligence mission, privacy protections for U.S. persons exist across the entire process.” The UK’s G.C.H.Q. declined to comment in specifics but said all its activities comply with British law.”