Angry Birds Company Says It Didn't Purposely Share Users' Private Data With Spy Bureaus
Rovio, the Finnish software company behind the Angry Birds game, has announced it will “re-evaluate” its relationship with advertising networks following revelations that the NSA and its UK counterpart GCHQ have the capability to “piggyback” on the private user data they collect.
On Monday, the Guardian, New York Times and ProPublica revealed that the US and UK spy agencies had built systems that could collect data from “leaky" smartphone apps, ranging from basic technical information to gender and location. Some apps mentioned in the documents collected more sensitive information, including sexual orientation of the user.
In a statement released in the wake of the story, Rovio’s chief executive said the company would examine its business relationships, but also called for the wider industry to respond to spy agencies’ use of commercial data traversing the web.
GCHQ documents used the Angry Birds app, which has been downloaded globally more than 1.7bn times, as an extended case study, setting out examples of the sorts of data that could be collected through advertising networks associated with the app.
Many apps are funded by advertising, which is typically delivered by third-party networks. To target and track these adverts, some data must be transmitted across the internet – making it available to intelligence agencies’ mass-interception efforts.
In its release, Rovio noted that if spy agencies are indeed targeting advertising networks, then “it would appear that no internet-enabled device that visits ad-enabled web sites or uses ad-enabled applications is immune to such surveillance”.
Targeting advertising is at the core of many if not most online business models that avoid subscription charges, whether apps or websites. Rovio’s CEO referred to the need to balance the ability of websites to make money with user privacy amid the NSA revelations as “the most important conversation to be had”.
Rovio sought to reassure players of Angry Birds that the company was not complicit in the surveillance, stressing it did not allow any of its advertising networks to “use or hand over” personal user data.
“Our fans’ trust is the most important thing for us and we take privacy extremely seriously,” said Mikael Hed, CEO of Rovio Entertainment. “We do not collaborate, collude, or share data with spy agencies anywhere in the world.
“As the alleged surveillance might be happening through third-party advertising networks, the most important conversation to be had is how to ensure user privacy is protected while preventing the negative impact on the whole advertising industry and the countless mobile apps that rely on ad networks.
“In order to protect our end users, we will, like all other companies using third-party advertising networks, have to re-evaluate working with these networks if they are being used for spying purposes.”
The NSA and GCHQ both insisted their use of all surveillance tools was in compliance with US and UK law and only deployed against valid national security targets.
In a separate development on Monday, technology companies including Google and Apple were granted permission by the Department of Justice to share further information on how much information they provide to the NSA. The tech giants had been lobbying for increased transparency in the wake of the revelation of the Prism program, and others, since last June.