Government using phone apps to spy on personal info

National Security Agency Seal
National Security Agency Seal (Photo credit: DonkeyHotey)

While you thumb through the latest games, puzzles and other apps on your smartphone, National Security Agency spies may be thumbing through your personal information.

The NSA can look through cell phone apps for your age, sex, location and other data, according to secret British intelligence documents leaked to the New York Times, The Guardian and ProPublica.

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These documents shed further light on the information leaked by Edward Snowden, former NSA contractor, last year. One such leak depicts the FBI ordering Verizon Wireless to give up identifying information about the calls made by any Verizon customer, according to Leaksource.

Another document, shared by the New York Times, The Guardian and ProPublica, reveals a much larger list of sought-out personal information: phone settings, geo-locations, connected networks, websites visited, buddy lists, documents downloaded, encryption used and supported and user agents.

In response to the public reaction at these leaked documents, the NSA sent out a press release in October explaining that any information collected was done so in a lawful manner, and was to obtain needed foreign intelligence rather than steal personal information.

Despite the NSA’s reassurances, the negative public reaction to these documents led President Obama to make a speech on Friday outlining where change regarding information gathering would be made–and where it wouldn’t.

Obama revealed in his speech that at the beginning of his presidency, he had conducted a personal investigation into the current information-gathering programs, and though he made some changes, he found nothing to suggest that the programs violated civil liberties.

“The men and women of the intelligence community, including the NSA, consistently follow protocols designed to protect the privacy of ordinary people,” Obama said. “They’re not abusing authorities in order to listen to your private phone calls or read your emails.”

President Obama spent much of the speech outlining a specific reform plan for all current intelligence-gathering programs, which includes strengthening executive branch oversight of intelligence activities, providing greater transparency to surveillance activities, increasing protections over citizen privacy, and annually reviewing the program.

However, he wanted to make it very clear that he was still in overall support of intelligence-gathering by the government.

“We cannot prevent terrorist attacks or cyber threats without some capability to penetrate digital communications, whether it’s to unravel a terrorist plot, to intercept malware that targets a stock exchange, to make sure air traffic control systems are not compromised or to ensure that hackers do not empty your bank accounts,” he said. “We are expected to protect the American people; that requires us to have capabilities in this field.”

The president also wanted to recognize that the government is not the only one tracking personal information.

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“Corporations of all shapes and sizes track what you buy, store and analyze our data and use it for commercial purposes,” he said.

Obama briefly commented on Snowden and the bigger impact of his actions.

“I will say that our nation’s defense depends in part on the fidelity of those entrusted with our nation’s secrets,” he said. “If any individual who objects to government policy can take it into their own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will not be able to keep our people safe, or conduct foreign policy.”

The president emphasized that the very existence of a debate like this proves that U.S. citizens still have more freedom over the citizens of foreign countries.

“No one expects China to have an open debate about their surveillance programs or Russia to take privacy concerns of citizens in other places into account,” Obama said. “The readiness of some to assume the worst motives by our government can be frustrating.”

Collegian Reporter Caitlin Curley can be reached at news@collegian.com.