Rovio, the company behind the wildly popular Angry Birds game franchise, is denying claims that it provides user information to government surveillance organizations such as the NSA. The denial follows reports that security documents leaked by Edward Snowden show Rovio has been cooperating with government agencies collecting personal information without search warrants. If government agencies are collecting user data, but Rovio isn't cooperating, where is the weak point in the information chain?
Angry Birds: We're not helping spies
The documents allege claim that Angry Birds, as well as other mobile device apps, transmit personal information information. Some apps offer up more than what type of smartphone someone has and go so far as to transmit sexual orientation and sexual preferences, according to The Guardian.
"We do not collaborate, collude, or share data with spy agencies anywhere in the world," said Rovio Entertainment CEO Mikael Hed. "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."
Mr. Hed is saying if information is being collected, it's coming from in-app advertisers, which happen to be the primary source of revenue for many games, including Angry Birds. He commented,
The alleged surveillance may be conducted through third party advertising networks used by millions of commercial web sites and mobile applications across all industries. If advertising networks are indeed targeted, it would appear that no internet-enabled device that visits ad-enabled web sites or uses ad-enabled applications is immune to such surveillance.
What isn't clear from Mr. Hed's statement is exactly what information Rovio apps are transmitting from user's devices to the company, and whether or not it is encrypted. The Mac Observer has reached out to Rovio for clarification, but hasn't yet received a response. The company does collect some data anonymously to use for targeted advertising in its apps.
Rovio's published policy states,
On the iOS, Rovio games do not use any specific data, unless explicitly asking for permission to do so. Coarse location based on metadata, such as network IP address, is used to target ads. This prevents, for example, people in Europe getting ads about marketing campaigns in the US.
Other companies, such as Apple, have publicly denied giving the NSA and other agencies direct access to customer information. Earlier this week, Apple CEO Tim Cook denied government agencies have access to company servers, adding "They would have to cart us out in a box for that."
If online advertising companies are the actual target of government spying, the big questions are which agencies are involved, and will app makers continue to use them to generate revenue. Assuming advertising companies are the target, that's a big problem because developers rely on that revenue stream to stay in business. Cutting off the cash flow, no matter how noble the cause, can drive companies out of business.
The upside to the privacy concerns the Snowden documents make is that technology companies and app developers are already looking at ways to improve security to keep prying eyes out, regardless of where those eyes come from: the private sector, or the government.
[Some image elements courtesy Shutterstock]