NSA Has Capability to Access All Your Smart Phone Data

Wednesday, September 11, 2013
(graphic: Electronic Frontier Foundation)

About 130 million Americans own smartphones, which from a personal privacy perspective aren’t all that smart given the National Security Agency’s (NSA) ability to pry into them.


Secret NSA documents from whistleblower Edward Snowden have revealed to the German newspaper Der Spiegel that the U.S. government spends a lot of time thinking about and finding ways to infiltrate smartphones.


The attraction of smartphones—that they can do so much for individuals—also makes them a prime target for NSA snoops. The devices function as personal communications centers, which means the government can obtain all kinds of information about a person by hacking into just a single phone.


“For an agency like the NSA, the data storage units are a goldmine, combining in a single device almost all the information that would interest an intelligence agency: social contacts, details about the user's behavior and location, interests (through search terms, for example), photos and sometimes credit card numbers and passwords,” Marcel Rosenbach, Laura Poitras and Holger Stark wrote for Der Spiegel.


Three years ago, the NSA began focusing considerable attention on smartphones, setting up task forces so the agency could learn everything it could about the devices’ manufacturers and operating systems, particularly Apple’s iPhone, Google’s Android mobile operating system and the BlackBerry, “which had been seen as an impregnable fortress until then,” the newspaper added.


When Der Spiegel contacted these companies for the story, BlackBerry officials refused to comment on alleged surveillance by governments. But in an official statement, the company said that “there is no 'back door' pipeline to our platform.”

Google issued a statement claiming: “We have no knowledge of working groups like these and do not provide any government with access to our systems.”


The story noted that the NSA documents contained “no indications of large-scale spying on smartphone users, and yet the documents leave no doubt that if the intelligence service defines a smartphone as a target, it will find a way to gain access to its information.”


But the materials did include some “impressive” examples of what the NSA might be able to extract from smartphones. They include personal—and some very risqué—photos actually lifted from the phones, including one showing “the son of a former defense secretary with his arm around a young woman.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

iSpy: How the NSA Accesses Smartphone Data (by Marcel Rosenbach, Laura Poitras and Holger Stark, Der Spiegel)

Sen. Wyden Warns American Citizens against Surveillance State (AllGov)

Security is Lax for U.S. Army Smart Phones and Tablets (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)   


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