Spy agencies including the U.S. National Security Agency have been working together to extract personal information, including location data and address books, from mobile apps as part of a globe-spanning effort to thwart terrorist plots, according to newly disclosed documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Dozens of documents, as reported Monday in The New York Times, the Guardian and ProPublica show that the apps people download onto their smartphones comprise one of many sources of information that intelligence agencies have looked to in recent years as part of their surveillance efforts.
The NSA and Britain's Government Communications Headquarters, were working together on how to collect and store data from dozens of smartphone apps by 2007, according to the reports.
The targeted apps have included the mobile versions of Facebook, Yahoo's Flickr, LinkedIn and Twitter. Since 2007, spy agencies have acted in unison to access data like address books, buddy lists, phone logs and geographic data stored within those apps, the reports said. Location and planning data stored within Google Maps was also cited as a potential surveillance target.
The efforts were part of an initiative known as "the mobile surge," according to a 2011 British document, referring to the troop surges in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Facebook, Yahoo, LinkedIn, Twitter and Google could not be immediately reached for comment.
The amount of data gathered from mobile apps, as well as specific information about how the process works, was not made clear. But the documents show that the NSA and its British counterpart routinely obtain information from certain apps, like those introduced earliest to cellphones, according to the reports.
But spy agencies may also be looking at data from newer apps, like the popular gaming service "Angry Birds." Although it is marketed as a game, "Angry Birds" gathers information about its users such as their location. Spy agencies have plotted how to gather this type of information in the background but it is not clear whether they have targeted these newer apps, the reports said.
Spy agencies' pursuit of mobile networks have been detailed in other reports. But the previously classified documents revealed Monday by the Times, the Guardian and ProPublica, provide new information on the level of interest that the NSA and others might have in smartphones specifically and the apps that run on them.
President Barack Obama recently outlined new changes to limit the surveillance powers of the government, partly with a plan to keep the NSA from holding onto bulk phone records. He did not, however, address the wealth of personal information that could be gleaned from mobile smartphone apps.
Sign up for CIO Asia eNewsletters.