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As NSA Collects Our Data, What Role Are Tech Companies Playing?

nsa-phone-metadataAngry Birds? Really?

News reports reveal that the National Security Agency (NSA) and British intelligence officials collected data from  “leaky apps” that provided tons of identification and geo-tracking information about smartphone users.

It’s not just games, though, that are useful. Facebook, Google Maps and other commonly used apps provide lots of data, too.

According to documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the NSA and Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters worked collaboratively since 2007, collecting and storing data from dozens of apps, The New York Times reported.

Many of us have come to a grudging acceptance of having our Internet viewing habits followed by advertisers and social media sites, which hope to foist more products on us. It is the price we pay for the convenience of using our phones for everything from finding a restaurant, using the GPS and having games that keep toddlers and preschoolers quiet on a road trip.

I wonder what the NSA found out about my 9-year-old granddaughter, who has her own iPhone? She plays games, watches movies and, at her father’s insistence, has some educational games there, too.

My almost 2-year-old granddaughter knows how to pull up songs on her mother’s phone, including “It’s Potty Time,” which inspires her to sing and rock to the beat.

Clearly, the point of checking out the apps isn’t so much to determine shopping and listening habits, but to exploit weaknesses in the programs and gain access to users’ personal data. It may not be that the governments wanted tons of general data as much as they wanted to figure out where the soft spots were so that when they did target someone they could move swiftly to track him down – sort of like hackers who crack open systems just to show they can.

Hmmm.

And just to throw us a curve, the Justice Department announced yesterday that it would let tech firms tell consumers a bit more about the kinds of information they are required to submit to the government.

Just as you work up your righteous indignation over the latest revelations from Snowden’s cache of documents, your attention and anger are redirected toward the Googles, Microsofts and Yahoos of the world for revealing the information you voluntarily gave them in the first place.

Don’t be surprised when this all becomes a blame-the-victim scenario. Were it not for the outsized appetite and demand for information and access from consumers, it wouldn’t be so easy for hackers/governments/spies to exploit the systems that tech firms are hustling to make increasingly more secure.

It’s a high-stakes game.

Jackie Jones, a journalist and journalism educator, is director of the career transformation firm Jones Coaching LLC and author of “Taking Care of the Business of You: 7 Days to Getting Your Career on Track.”

 

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