New revelations about the extent of the NSA and GCHQ’s spying programs on what basically seems to amount to the whole world and everyone in it continues to be drip fed to us from the journalists working with the materials leaked by Edward Snowden. Today we learnt through the Guardian and ProPublica that even Finland’s Rovio and their beloved Angry Birds have not been safe from the machinations of the US and UK’s spy agencies.
According to the classified documents Snowden leaked many of the biggest and most popular mobile applications on smartphones have been piggybacked upon to gain access to all the data you might have thought was only being shared with that app. Or in some cases, had no idea the app, or its partners was recording.
If you are at all savvy with the way many modern applications work then you are probably already aware that many apps like to keep records of basic information about you, such as your sex, age, and location, with those being only a few that come to mind. Their aim, and it’s openly talked about, is to use that information to provide customers with better services and targeted advertising, making the programs you use more helpful and providing you with relevant, interesting ads that might actually influence you. How you feel about that in itself is probably worthy of discussion.
Of course this is all information that governments and particularly their spy agencies would love to get their hands on, so it really should come as no surprise to find out that they have been. Google Maps has apparently been a rich treasure trove, revealing clear and detailed location history information, as has Angry Birds it turns out.
Back in 2011 Rovio partnered with US advertising company Millennial Media to add advertising tracking software to its Angry Birds games. At the beginning of 2013 there was a bit of an outcry when it was discovered just how much information Millennial Media were collecting from users of the game. Along with the usual details mentioned above, it turns out that they were also recording political affiliation, marital status and sexual preference. The documents suggest that the information the NSA and GCHQ gathered wasn’t from hacking into Rovio or Millennial Media, rather they were able to access and decode the data being transmitted from the phones back to developers.
Along with the demands and questions being put to the American and British secret services about the extent and depth of their spying activities across whole populations perhaps there are other questions to be asking as well. Where does the line between public and private data lie when we look at the amount of data developers and associated advertising companies are accessing about us? How can we retain and secure our personal information so that it doesn’t become freely available to not only national government agencies but also any company looking to make money from us?