Meet the 'Spy Smurfs': Here's how the NSA, GCHQ target iPhones, Android devices

Summary: Two of the 'Five Eyes' intelligence agencies are scooping up app data, which named Google Maps, that can lead to the disclosure of extremely personal, sensitive data.

(Image: NSA/Guardian; New York Times)

British and American spy agencies are able to gather vast amounts of personally indentifiable information, including age, location, and even sexual orientation and politicial persuasions, according to the latest documents leaked by former U.S. government contractor Edward Snowden.

The Guardian, The New York Times and ProPublica working in conjunction with one another both published claims that smartphone apps that 'leak' data from iPhone and Android apps, for instance, which are piggybacked by Britain's GCHQ and the U.S. National Security Agency.

Not needing to tap directly into a user's smartphone, cable taps and other mass surveillance efforts provide the intelligence agencies with large quantities of this data.

The Guardian, reporting from New York, said the NSA has already spent $1 billion on this phone targeting effort. The logic behind this is said to be as a result of terrorists and other intelligence targets increasingly using mobile devices.

One slide, titled 'Golden Nugget!' describes how a photo uploaded to a social network would yield a vast amount of data and metadata, known as EXIF (Exchangeable Image File Format), that can include geolocation, gender, marital status, education level, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.

Named in one report, Google Maps queries made on smartphones could be intercepted, to such a point that one 2008 document described the effort as effectively anyone using the service 'is working in support of a GCHQ system.'

Not unique to Google's mobile mapping system, the information gathered by apps are designed to be used by an app's advertisers, to deliver relevant targeted content.

Whether or not this kind of personal data is collected by the NSA or GCHQ remains unclear, as the documents do not state. However, the reports suggest this kind of information would be considered 'content,' rather than metadata.

The latest leaks offer yet another insight into how multiple NSA and GCHQ programs are being used in other intelligence operations, based on other leaks offered by Snowden.

It was reported late in 2013 that the NSA spied on the activities of suspected terrorists in efforts to build up profiles of their personal states, in order to later 'discredit' them. The leaks identified a number of Muslim targets said to be vulnerable to accusations of 'online promiscuity,' according to the BBC News.

This information could be used to 'call into question a radicaliser's devotion to the jihadist cause, leading to the degradation or loss of his authority,' the leaks suggested.


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