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TMCNet:  NSA and GCHQ track on every personal information through APPs [Mehr News Agency (Iran)]

[January 28, 2014]

NSA and GCHQ track on every personal information through APPs [Mehr News Agency (Iran)]

(Mehr News Agency (Iran) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) TEHRAN, Jan. 28 (MNA) – The National Security Agency and its UK counterpart GCHQ have been developing capabilities to take advantage of "leaky" smartphone apps, such as the wildly popular Angry Birds game, that transmit users' private information across the internet, according to top secret documents. The data pouring onto communication networks from the new generation of iPhone and Android apps ranges from phone model and screen size to personal details such as age, gender and location. Some apps, the documents state, can share users' most sensitive information such as sexual orientation – and one app recorded in the material even sends specific sexual preferences such as whether or not the user may be a swinger. Many smartphone owners will be unaware of the full extent this information is being shared across the internet, and even the most sophisticated would be unlikely to realize that all of it is available for the spy agencies to collect. Dozens of classified documents, provided to the Guardian by whistleblower Edward Snowden and reported in partnership with the New York Times and ProPublica, detail the NSA and GCHQ efforts to piggyback on this commercial data collection for their own purposes. Scooping up information the apps are sending about their users allows the agencies to collect large quantities of mobile phone data from their existing mass surveillance tools – such as cable taps, or from international mobile networks – rather than solely from hacking into individual mobile handsets. Exploiting phone information and location is a high-priority effort for the intelligence agencies. The NSA has cumulatively spent more than $1bn in its phone targeting efforts. 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. The agencies also made use of their mobile interception capabilities to collect location information in bulk, from Google and other mapping apps. One basic effort by GCHQ and the NSA was to build a database geolocating every mobile phone mast in the world – meaning that just by taking tower ID from a handset, location information could be gleaned. A more sophisticated effort, though, relied on intercepting Google Maps queries made on smartphones, and using them to collect large volumes of location information. So successful was this effort that one 2008 document noted that "it effectively means that anyone using Google Maps on a smartphone is working in support of a GCHQ system." The information generated by each app is chosen by its developers, or by the company that delivers an app's adverts. The documents do not detail whether the agencies actually collect the potentially sensitive details some apps are capable of storing or transmitting, but any such information would likely qualify as content, rather than metadata. The latest disclosures could also add to mounting public concern about how the technology sector collects and uses information, especially for those outside the US, who enjoy fewer privacy protections than Americans. A January poll for the Washington Post showed 69% of US adults were already concerned about how tech companies such as Google used and stored their information. The GCHQ documents set out examples of what information can be extracted from different ad platforms, using perhaps the most popular mobile phone game of all time, Angry Birds – which has reportedly been downloaded more than 1.7bn times – as a case study. From some app platforms, relatively limited, but identifying, information such as exact handset model, the unique ID of the handset, software version, and similar details are all that are transmitted.   Other apps choose to transmit much more data, meaning the agency could potentially net far more. One mobile ad platform, Millennial Media, appeared to offer particularly rich information. Millennial Media's website states it has partnered with Rovio on a special edition of Angry Birds; with Farmville maker Zynga; with Call of Duty developer Activision, and many other major franchises. In December, the Washington Post reported on how the NSA could make use of advertising tracking files generated through normal internet browsing – known as cookies – from Google and others to get information on potential targets. However, the richer personal data available to many apps, coupled with real-time geolocation, and the uniquely identifying handset information many apps transmit give the agencies a far richer data source than conventional web-tracking cookies. Almost every major website uses cookies to serve targeted advertising and content, as well as streamline the experience for the user, for example by managing logins. One GCHQ document from 2010 notes that cookie data – which generally qualifies as metadata – has become just as important to the spies. In fact, the agencies were sweeping it up in such high volumes that their were struggling to store it. The NSA declined to respond to a series of queries on how routinely capabilities against apps were deployed, or on the specific minimisation procedures used to prevent US citizens' information being stored through such measures. GCHQ declined to comment on any of its specific programs, but stressed all of its activities were proportional and complied with UK law. A separate disclosure on Wednesday, published by Glenn Greenwald and NBC News, gave examples of how GCHQ was making use of its cable-tapping capabilities to monitor YouTube and social media traffic in real-time. GCHQ's cable-tapping and internet buffering capabilities , codenamed Tempora, were disclosed by the Guardian in June, but the new documents published by NBC from a GCHQ presentation titled "Psychology: A New Kind of SIGDEV" set out a program codenamed Squeaky Dolphin which gave the British spies "broad real-time monitoring" of "YouTube Video Views", "URLs 'Liked' on Facebook" and "Blogspot/Blogger Visits". A further slide noted that "passive" – a term for large-scale surveillance through cable intercepts – give the agency "scalability". The means of interception mean GCHQ and NSA could obtain data without any knowledge or co-operation from the technology companies. Spokespeople for the NSA and GCHQ said that all programs were carried out in accordance with US and UK law. Guardian MNA END (c) 2014 Mehr News Agency Provided by Syndigate.info, an Albawaba.com company


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