What the NSA can learn from Angry Birds

The NSA has been reportedly snooping into the data collected by mobile apps. What does Angry Birds know that the NSA doesn’t? 

Well, in general, here is what your gaming app knows about you:

LEVEL 1: Whether you suck at the game. 

"It’ll see that you’re getting stuck in a particular part of the game, or a place where most people are getting stuck," says Kelly McIvor with the mobile fundraising service TapFunder.   

That kind of internal analytic can be kept within the publisher’s purview, and used to improve the game. 

ULTRA LEVEL 2:  Your location.  

Some apps may ask for information that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the game – like your GPS location.  This, again, can be kept in house and used for marketing.

"They want to know, 'Is this game really being played a lot in North America, versus Asia, versus wherever,'" explains Amal Graafstra, Director of Awesome at AtomicMobile.

SUPER MEGA LEVEL 3: Your Social Media profile.

"By granting a game app access to your Facebook profile, you tell people where you are, what your birthday is, who your friends are, the cities you live and vacation in," says Will Riegel, a marketing and advertising consultant.   

When you start letting your game access your Facebook profile (or Google+, or Pinterest, or any other social network), perhaps for the ostensible purpose of posting about your score, then the data really starts pouring in. 

And don’t forget that with some apps – perhaps not games as much, but some mobile apps – there’s plenty of information that you tell the app yourself when you register.   

"Sexual orientation or relationship status," says Riegel. Think Grindr or OkCupid.

Add to this the information associated with your phone’s browsing habits, and you’ve got a ton of information.

IS IT SHARED?

Some apps share, some don’t. But the more there is, the more lucrative it is to share it. 

"There are some companies that make money as brokers,” says Graafstra. A game maker may have no reason to gather GPS data, but "along comes this other company and says if you add GPS coordinates to your app and periodically report those to us, we can pay you for that data." 

On the other end of the spectrum, information can also be shared in an aggregated way (no individual identifiers) to ad networks.

 IS IT ANONYMOUS?

Usually, it is uniquely identifiable but not personally identifiable.  As in, it could be traced to a particular phone or a “user 5013820” but not “James Jones, 35, New York based circus performer and socialite."

But not everyone is convinced of that.  

"Anonymization gets difficult once you start coupling a lot of disparate data sets," says Nathan Eagle, CEO of Jana, a mobile technology platform that connects global brands with emerging market consumers.

"There’s not anything guaranteeing that all this data is anonymized," says AtomicMobile’s Graafstra. "I would bet apps that collect this data nefariously do so with the highest degree of accuracy, because that’s where the more value lies."

Basically, the data is more valuable when it’s not anonymized. 

WHAT’S IT USED FOR?

"It’s used for one purpose and one purpose only – to increase the probability that you click on that banner ad," says Eagle. 

Unless, of course, you’re the NSA and you’re hacking into app servers to get this data.  Then, well, you have other purposes. 

About the author

Sabri Ben-Achour is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the New York City bureau. He covers Wall Street, finance, and anything New York and money related.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...