IQ: It’s time to get angry over Angry Birds surveillance

Issue: The latest Snowden revelations are clear evidence of surveillance overreach

The report  details how the NSA and its British equivalent, GCHQ, have been “developing capabilities to take advantage of ‘leaky’ smartphone apps, such as the wildly popular Angry Birds

The report details how the NSA and its British equivalent, GCHQ, have been “developing capabilities to take advantage of ‘leaky’ smartphone apps, such as the wildly popular Angry Birds

Sat, Feb 1, 2014, 01:00

It’s hard to imagine your average, West-hating jihadist interrupting his terrorist training regime to engage in a few minutes playing Angry Birds on his smartphone, though that is the rather incongruous image conjured up by the revelation that intelligence agencies have been attempting to intercept data from the addictive game, as well as from a range of other smartphone apps.

The report – a joint investigation by the Guardian, the New York Times and ProPublica based on information provided by Edward Snowden – details how the NSA and its British equivalent, 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”.


Sexual orientation
The data can reveal a user’s age, gender and location, while “some apps . . . can share users’ most sensitive information such as sexual orientation”.

Are the players of Angry Birds really so likely to represent a threat to national security that their data needs to be surreptitiously hijacked? Sure, it’s just about possible to interpret the game, which involves catapulting various irate flying characters at smug green pigs in their elaborate buildings, as a metaphor for Islamist terrorism, but that’s hardly cause for such a spying programme.


Voracious appetite
The reality, of course, is rather more mundane – this is just another instance of the US intelligence agency’s voracious appetite for data. A Washington Post profile of outgoing NSA director Gen Keith Alexander famously characterised his surveillance ethos as: “Collect it all, tag it, store it . . . And whatever it is you want, you go searching for it.”

And by all, he really seemed to mean every shred of personal information that could be hoovered up and sent to the agency’s vast data centres, ready to be mined.

The NSA’s defence for its behaviour has previously been based on the premise that closely monitoring digital communications is the only way to safeguard national security. Regardless of the legality or otherwise of such an approach, at least the concept was clear. But whatever veneer of credibility such an excuse might have had, this revelation renders it thoroughly unconvincing.

The inanity of the “spying on Angry Birds players” scenario is a perfect illustration of surveillance overreach, in which people’s privacy is breached not due to any suspicion or as a result of any due process, but merely because it is possible.

It’s time to be very angry indeed.