The NSA is back in the news, and this time it appears that the Agency was targeting data from smart phone applications as well as ordinary calling records. According to reports from The New York Times and The Guardian, the NSA and its British counterpart, the GCHQ, have been tracking information regarding the age, sex, and location of smart phone users. This means that both American and British citizens now have reason to worry when opening and using applications such as Google Maps and even popular games.
The NSA and GCHQ have targeted so-called “leaky” apps, or apps that spread user information across the internet while the user has the app open. The problem is that most smart phone users are unaware that the apps spread this information which, according to documents released by Edward Snowden, contain information as personal as sexual orientation and preference. Most of the apps used by the agencies are extremely popular and include the previously mentioned Google Maps, Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social media platforms.
One of the most concerning aspects of the NSA’s activities is that it intended to create a database using Google to be able to pinpoint the location of any phone in the world based on GPS tracking. It appears that the NSA only needs a cellular ID number in order to determine the exact location of any smart phone user it chooses. These new capabilities reach considerably further than the PRISM program, which involved collecting only metadata based on outgoing and incoming calls. However, it seems unclear just how many Americans have been affected by this method of intelligence gathering.
The difference here is that the public outcry that is sure to follow might not be aimed solely at the NSA. This new information also raises concerns that private corporations and developers might not be doing enough to protect users’ sensitive information. Part of the question then becomes whether these developers could or should have known that the government would have access to the information. One would think that concerns about non-governmental hackers would have led developers to solve these problems sooner.
Regardless of who is to blame, this new addition to the NSA scandal will raise even more eyebrows. It is one thing to gather metadata that is largely protected until a warrant grants the NSA the right to examine it, but it is an entirely different thing for the Agency to actively track the locations, sexual orientations, age, and sex of smart phone users. As usual, there is still a lot to be learned about this program and how far it went. However, it will undoubtedly add another layer of distrust to this ever-evolving scandal.
Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research