I didn’t set out to become Twitter famous in Saudi Arabia.
As a senior White House reporter for POLITICO, I’ve traveled all over the country and the world with President Barack Obama, touching down in Air Force One on one unremarkable tarmac after another to record his arrival. I seldom find them noteworthy — and, as an infrequent tweeter, rarely ever share-worthy.
But Riyadh was different. A stunning display of Saudi guards awaited Obama at the airport Friday in perfect formation, swords in hand and scarves on their head. So I did something I don’t normally do: I tweeted the photos.
And by the time I departed Saudi Arabia for the United States less than 24 hours later, my Twitter follower count had more than quadrupled — from just 3,500 to more than 15,000.
The story of how that happened spotlights the powerful, disruptive force of Twitter in a country that sharply restricts news of its royal family and the government.
My stream of mediocre iPhone photos — mostly taken at King Abdullah’s desert retreat — managed to captivate, anger and surprise the country’s vast Twitter community. Al-Arabiya did a piece Saturday on my “famous” feed, local newspapers picked up the photos, reporters have attempted to interview me, and the tweets demanding more images kept rolling in Sunday.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise. Use of the social network in Saudi Arabia has exploded since the Arab Spring, making that country the fastest-growing market in the world, according to GlobalWebIndex, a marketing research firm. It’s also the top global market in terms of time spent on mobile devices, as 60 percent of users access the internet through phones or tablets rather than PCs.
After several years of relative online freedom, the Saudi government has increased its control over the social network, which has become a popular platform for dissent. People have been jailed, intimidated and harassed for using Twitter to criticize the government and royal family.
But I didn’t fully realize any of that as Marine One and a helicopter carrying a pool of White House reporters and photographers swept across the desert towards Abdullah’s outpost for his meeting with Obama.
We flew for 30 minutes from the airport in Riyadh over dry terrain, seeing nothing for miles but the occasional truck rumbling over the dusty ground, a few wandering camels and small isolated clusters of rickety houses.
Then, off in the distance, there was greenery — verdant trees and lush grass — and a compound of buildings and tents that matched the color of sand. It reminded me of the many times we flew into Las Vegas during the 2008 presidential campaign, the lights and glitzy hotels so jarring against the desert landscape.
As soon as the helicopter landed, the press rushed out of the back of it and across the blacktop to get into position for the president’s arrival — and the sandstorm created by the whirling blades of Marine One.
These kinds of photo opportunities are usually pretty uneventful — but there was immediately something chaotic about this one. Guards circled us, sometimes blocking our view of Obama as he was greeted by the Saudi delegation and walked several hundred feet to Abdullah’s retreat.
At one point, the guards tried to keep us from getting close to the entrance and following Obama’s movement into the building. It prompted Josh Lipsky, a veteran advance staffer for the White House, to repeatedly yell at the guards that this wasn’t the agreement they had negotiated, and that the U.S. press would move forward despite their objections.
We piled through the hulking front door and just kept walking, minimizing the opportunity for the Saudi handlers to throw up more obstacles.
What we found inside was something straight off a movie set. Tall bowls with wrapped chocolates stacked in precise rows. Fresh flowers on every coffee table. A massive gold clock the size of an armoire. Satin upholstery, crystal chandeliers, oriental rugs and luxurious couches with perfectly place pillows. Photos of the king hung on the walls, including one of him almost touching noses with a horse.
BEIJING — Judges on Monday began hearing arguments in the closely watched murder and corruption trial of Liu Han, a powerful billionaire from western China accused of running a criminal network to build his fortune.
Political analysts say the trial is an outgrowth of efforts to investigate an even more powerful target — Zhou Yongkang, a former Politburo Standing Committee member who ran China’s sprawling domestic security apparatus for a decade, until his retirement in 2012. Mr. Zhou was also a senior figure in the oil industry and from 1999 to 2002 was party chief in Sichuan Province, where Mr. Liu lived and made his fortune through mining, real estate and other industries.
Mr. Liu’s trial is being scrutinized for connections between his activities and Mr. Zhou. Prosecutors in the court in the city of Xianning, in Hubei Province, announced Monday at least 18 criminal charges against Mr. Liu and his younger brother, Liu Wei, according to a microblog post by the court. The charges include murder, extortion, illegal detention, destruction of property, harboring criminals and illegal possession and trade of firearms. Thirty-four of Liu Han’s associates are also being tried.
China’s Public Security Minister Zhou Yongkang reacts as he attends the Hebei delegation discussion sessions at the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China at the Great Hall of the People, in Beijing in this October 16, 2007 file photo. Credit: Reuters/Jason Lee/Files
The trial is taking place in Hubei Province presumably to shield it from Liu Han’s influence, which was widespread in Sichuan. The trial is expected to continue for days or even weeks. The 36 defendants are being tried in five courtrooms; all of the cases opened Monday.
The Chinese legal system is subservient to the Communist Party, and political analysts say guilty verdicts have almost certainly been predetermined in these cases.
On Monday morning, China Central Television, the state network, posted on Twitter a photograph of two tall police officers standing on either side of Mr. Liu, who was dressed in a gray jacket and dark pants, and gripping his arms. The Xianning People’s Intermediate Court put out hourly updates on its microblog.
The propaganda spectacle surrounding the trial appeared to be an attempt to convey to ordinary citizens that Xi Jinping, the head of the Communist Party, and his fellow leaders are serious about their crackdown on corruption, which party officials say is aimed at snaring both “tigers” and “flies” — that is, both high- and low-ranking targets. The dissemination of details about Mr. Liu and his gang may also be laying the foundations for whatever announcements might follow about Mr. Zhou, the biggest “tiger” to be investigated so far, and his family members.
Details of the case being built against Mr. Liu were first released publicly in February. Official news reports said Mr. Liu had amassed 40 billion renminbi, or $6.4 billion. Xinhua, the state news agency, said then that Mr. Liu ran a “mafia-style gang” that killed at least nine people and bullied villagers into giving up land that Mr. Liu later used for shadowy business purposes. Xinhua said Mr. Liu and his younger brother had confessed to the murders.
One Xinhua news report from February said an employee of one of Mr. Liu’s companies had confessed to killing a villager who led protests against one of Mr. Liu’s projects in Sichuan. In 2009, the younger brother, who was a torchbearer during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, ordered the murders of three people at an open-air teahouse in his hometown, Guanghan, in Sichuan Province, Xinhua said. Liu Wei went into hiding after a suspect arrested during the investigation named him.
In March 2012, Liu Han was arrested and accused of helping his brother evade the law. An attempt by Mr. Liu to buy an Australian mining company, Sundance Resources, collapsed the next month. Earlier, in 2009, Mr. Liu’s main company, Sichuan Hanlong Group, bought a controlling stake in another Australian company, Moly Mines.
Mr. Liu was also the head of Sichuan Jinlu Group, which is listed on the Shenzhen stock exchange.
Another billionaire from Sichuan, Deng Hong, was formally arrested in late 2013 and was also being held by police officers in Xianning, according to a Beijing News report that was carried by Xinhua. Mr. Deng was close to Li Chuncheng, the deputy party chief of Sichuan, who had a quick rise through the party ranks while Mr. Zhou was leading Sichuan. Mr. Li was detained in December 2012 and was being investigated by the party’s anticorruption commission.
The party announced Mr. Li’s detention just weeks after Mr. Zhou retired from what was then the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, which makes the top policy decisions in China.
A senior White House reporter’s Twitter account has exploded after she posted controversial photos from President Obama’s trip to Saudi Arabia.
Carrie Budoff Brown, who writes for Politico, transfixed thousands of Saudis who are starved of news from their own royal family and government because of strict censorship rules.
However, since the Arab Spring, use of Twitter and other social networks has expanded exponentially in the region, making it the fasted growing market in the world.
And when Brown began posting pictures of 89-year-old King Abdullah, whose health is unknown to his people, with an oxygen tube beneath his nose, her followers jumped from 3,500 to more than 16,000 in just 24 hours. As of Sunday night, she had 16,700.
Brown wrote a first-person account for Politico explaining the incredible response to her pictures on Sunday night.
Most of Brown’s photos were taken at King Abdullah’s desert retreat.
She said she was amazed at how her ‘stream of mediocre iPhone photos… managed to captivate, anger and surprise the country’s vast Twitter community.’
Her Twitter feed became the subject of a Al-Arabiya piece on Saturday and local newspapers picked up her photos.
Twitter users bombarded her with tweets requesting more images in the country where the government has jailed, intimated and harassed people for using the social network to criticize authority.
Brown admits she didn’t fully realize any of this when Marine One and a helicopter carrying a pool of White House reporters and photographers swept across the desert towards Abdullah’s outpost for his meeting with Obama.
She started snapping as they flew from the airport in Riyadh over desert, seeing nothing but dry terrain and the odd camel.
But then they came across lush green grass and trees, and a compound of lavish buildings and tents that reminded her of Las Vegas for their contrast to the sand.
After landing, security guards attempted to block the US press from getting to the entrance of the building as Obama walked in, but White House staffers repeatedly yelled that this wasn’t what was agreed and that the media would not be shut out.
When they piled through, Brown said what they saw was ‘straight out of a movie set.’
British spies employed ‘dirty tricks’ including ‘honey traps’ to trap nations, hackers, terror groups, suspected criminals and arms dealers, according to leaked documents.
The bombshell revelations have been made public through the release of documents taken from the National Security Agency by whistle-blower Edward Snowden.
The Powerpoint slides outline techniques apparently used by the Joint Threat Research and Intelligence Group (JTRIG), a British spy unit whose goal is to ‘destroy, deny, degrade [and] disrupt’ enemies.
British spies employed ‘dirty tricks’ including honey traps’ in a bid to trap nations, hackers, terror groups, suspected criminals and arms dealers
The slides from 2010 and 2012, published by NBC News show that the JTRIG completed their mission by ‘discrediting’ adversaries through misinformation and hacking their communications.
Two main methods of attack detailed in the ‘Effects’ campaigns are cyber operations and propaganda campaigns.
The bombshell revelations have been made public through the release of documents taken from the National Security Agency by whistleblower Edward Snowden
JTRIG, which is part of the NSA’s British counterpart, the cyber spy agency known as GCHQ, used Twitter, Flickr, Facebook and YouTube for deception, mass messaging and ‘pushing stories’.
Another strategy is ‘false flag’ operations – this is when British agents carry out online actions that are designed to look like they were performed by one of Britain’s adversaries.
The main cyber attack is the ‘distributed denial of service’ (DDoS) attack.
This is when computers are taken over by hackers and they bombard a website’s host computers with requests for information causing it to crash - this is a method successfully used by Wikileaks hackers.
Earlier this week it was revealed that JTRIG agents issued their DDoS on Anonymous chat rooms, preventing its users from communicating with one another.
In one case, reported the BBC, agents are said to have tricked a hacker nicknamed P0ke who claimed to have stolen data from the US government. They did this by sending him a link to a BBC article entitled: ‘Who loves the hacktivists?’
Eric King, an attorney who currently teaches IT law at the London School of Economics, told NBC it is ‘remarkable’ that the GCHQ has become so adept at launching DDoS attacks without ‘clear lawful authority,’ particularly because the British government has criticised similar strategies used by other governments.
‘GCHQ has no clear authority to send a virus or conduct cyber-attacks,’ he said. ‘Hacking is one of the most invasive methods of surveillance.’
According to notes on the 2012 documents, a computer virus called Ambassadors Reception was ‘used in a variety of different areas’ and was ‘very effective.’
When sent to adversaries, says the presentation, the virus will ‘encrypt itself, delete all emails, encrypt all files, make [the] screen shake’ and block the computer user from logging on.
One of the ways to block a target communicating reads: ‘Bombard their phone with text messages, bombard their phone with calls, delete their online presence, block up their fax machine.’
The slide details examples of how this was used in Afghanistan including significantly disrupting the Taliban, sending targets a text message ‘every 10 seconds or so’ and ‘calling targets on a regular basis’.
The British cyber spies also used blog posts and information spread via blogs in an operation against Iran.
One of the ways to stop a target communicating reads: ‘Bombard their phone with text messages, bombard their phone with calls, delete their online presence, block up their fax machine’
The same 2012 presentation describes the ‘honey trap’ method of discrediting a target commenting it is ‘very successful’ when it works.
The individual is lured ‘to go somewhere on the internet, or a physical location’ where they are then ‘met by a friendly face.’
It does not give any examples of when the honey trap has been used by British agents, but the same slide also details how ‘paranoia’ can be heightened by changing a target’s photo on a social networking website – the slide reads ‘You have been warned JTRIG is about!’
A programme called ‘Royal Concierge’ took advantage of hotel reservation systems to track the location of foreign diplomats and the slides encourage agents to monitor targets through ‘close access technical operations’.
It also suggests they question ‘Can we influence hotel choice? Can we cancel their visits?’
According to reports in Der Spiegel last year, British intelligence tapped the reservations systems of over 350 top hotels around the world for the past three years to set up the programme.
Using the GCHQ’s SIGINT (signal-intelligence) program it was used to spy on trade delegations, foreign diplomats, and other targets with a taste for the high life.
NBC news reported GCHQ would not comment on the newly published documents or on JTRIG’s operations.
In a statement it told them: ‘All of GCHQ’s work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework,’ said the statement, ‘which ensure[s] that our activities are authorized, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight, including from the Secretary of State, the Interception and Intelligence Services Commissioners and the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. All of our operational processes rigorously support this position.’
China: Murong Xuecun, a 39-year-old novelist, once had 1.1 million followers on Weibo. He explains why he has now largely abandoned the social media site
The chinese app Weibo’s logo is displayed on a tablet Photo: AFP/Getty Images
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“After my account was deleted in May 2013, I opened nine more accounts and they were all deleted. Recently one of them was allowed back, so I’m using that.
“In 2009, Sina (Weibo) invited me to open an account. They said lots of accounts were from sports stars and celebrities and they wanted someone to offer some depth. So I opened an account and I helped them find other writers.
“To start with, I only tweeted about literature and art. But during the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ (a short-lived movement at the time of the Arab Spring) my friend Ran Yunfei was arrested. I was so angry I started calling for rights and equality.
“At the start I only used to post every two to three days. Sometimes I wouldn’t post at all for a month. But after the Jasmine Revolution I posted every day.
“Now I rarely use it. They always delete my accounts and it is a hassle to set up each one anew. Also they always delay my posts. It takes hours before my followers can read anything. That is annoying.
“The information flowing on Weibo has changed dramatically since the campaign against the internet began last August. There used to be lots of people discussing the history of the Party, posting criticism of either central or local government, and debating the nature of patriotism.
“Now it is all about pets, show business and the daily lives of celebrities. Going forward, I am not going to spend much time on it.”
Comment: The success of China’s censorship of microblogging sites could become a model for other nations
Sina Weibo Logo Screenshot Photo: Alamy
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By Padraig Reidy
The Daily Telegraph
It’s easy to be glib about social media. Page upon page of selfies, pleas for attention from celebrities, misogynist trolls and angels-on-pinhead arguments.
But as the Telegraph’s research shows, the Chinese authorities take the web very seriously indeed.
Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, is a huge platform, with over 200 million users. And for a while, it functioned freely, or as freely as anything does in China. It was, of course, monitored, and thousands of people were employed to post pro-government opinions and stories on the network.
But the old-style censorship didn’t seem to be working as well as it should. Partly because it was just too obvious. In March 2012, rumours spread that the son of a Communist Party Official had been involved in a fatal crash while driving his Ferrari. As people discussed the story, they suddenly found that the word Ferrari had been blocked. For many, this made it clear that someone powerful had something to hide, and people openly wrote about their frustration with the system.
Shortly afterwards, Weibo introduced new contracts concerning conduct. Anonymity went out the window. Spreading ‘umours’ became an offence. High profile users were put on alert – if a story you shared went viral, you were personally responsible. On a platform dependent on sharing, this was bound to cause people to think twice before sending their messages out to the world. And on a reactive, interactive and instantaneous platform like Weibo or Twitter, that slowing of pace is lethal. It would appear that Weibo is in danger of becoming boring. Just how the authorities want it.
Could this happen elsewhere? Look at the debate in the UK: every week a fresh cry goes up for something to be ‘done’ about Twitter trolls, often beyond the existing laws that govern free speech and communication – with the ending of anonymity being a particularly popular (and ill thought out) demand. While these calls may be well-meaning, they are part of a broader uncertainty about how to deal with the fact people now have an unprecedented ability to publish to the world.
The Chinese government (and others, such as the highly tech-savvy Iranians) will tell you that this comes with an unprecedented ability to monitor and censor. As China becomes more and more powerful, its model of web censorship, both internal and external, could become the norm.
US and UK spy agencies piggyback on commercial data
Details can include age, location and sexual orientation
Documents also reveal targeted tools against individual phones
By James Ball
GCHQ documents use Angry Birds – reportedly downloaded more than 1.7bn times – as a case study for app data collection.
The National Security Agency and its UK counterpart GCHQ have been developing capabilities to take advantage of “leaky” smartphone apps, such as the wildly popular Angry Birds game, that transmit users’ private information across the internet, according to top secret documents.
The data pouring onto communication networks from the new generation of iPhone and Android apps ranges from phone model and screen size to personal details such as age, gender and location. Some apps, the documents state, can share users’ most sensitive information such as sexual orientation – and one app recorded in the material even sends specific sexual preferences such as whether or not the user may be a swinger.
Many smartphone owners will be unaware of the full extent this information is being shared across the internet, and even the most sophisticated would be unlikely to realise that all of it is available for the spy agencies to collect.
Dozens of classified documents, provided to the Guardian by whistleblower Edward Snowden and reported in partnership with the New York Times and ProPublica, detail the NSA and GCHQ efforts to piggyback on this commercial data collection for their own purposes.
Scooping up information the apps are sending about their users allows the agencies to collect large quantities of mobile phone data from their existing mass surveillance tools – such as cable taps, or from international mobile networks – rather than solely from hacking into individual mobile handsets.
Exploiting phone information and location is a high-priority effort for the intelligence agencies, as terrorists and other intelligence targets make substantial use of phones in planning and carrying out their activities, for example by using phones as triggering devices in conflict zones. The NSA has cumulatively spent more than $1bn in its phone targeting efforts.
The disclosures also reveal how much the shift towards smartphone browsing could benefit spy agencies’ collection efforts.
One slide from a May 2010 NSA presentation on getting data from smartphones – breathlessly titled “Golden Nugget!” – sets out the agency’s “perfect scenario”: “Target uploading photo to a social media site taken with a mobile device. What can we get?”
The question is answered in the notes to the slide: from that event alone, the agency said it could obtain a “possible image”, email selector, phone, buddy lists, and “a host of other social working data as well as location”.
In practice, most major social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, strip photos of identifying location metadata (known as EXIF data) before publication. However, depending on when this is done during upload, such data may still, briefly, be available for collection by the agencies as it travels across the networks.
Depending on what profile information a user had supplied, the documents suggested, the agency would be able to collect almost every key detail of a user’s life: including home country, current location (through geolocation), age, gender, zip code, martial status – options included “single”, “married”, “divorced”, “swinger” and more – income, ethnicity, sexual orientation, education level, and number of children.
The agencies also made use of their mobile interception capabilities to collect location information in bulk, from Google and other mapping apps. One basic effort by GCHQ and the NSA was to build a database geolocating every mobile phone mast in the world – meaning that just by taking tower ID from a handset, location information could be gleaned.
A more sophisticated effort, though, relied on intercepting Google Maps queries made on smartphones, and using them to collect large volumes of location information.
So successful was this effort that one 2008 document noted that “[i]t effectively means that anyone using Google Maps on a smartphone is working in support of a GCHQ system.”
The information generated by each app is chosen by its developers, or by the company that delivers an app’s adverts. The documents do not detail whether the agencies actually collect the potentially sensitive details some apps are capable of storing or transmitting, but any such information would likely qualify as content, rather than metadata.
Data collected from smartphone apps is subject to the same laws and minimisation procedures as all other NSA activity – procedures that the US president, Barack Obama, suggested may be subject to reform in a speech 10 days ago. But the president focused largely on the NSA’s collection of the metadata from US phone calls and made no mention in his address of the large amounts of data the agency collects from smartphone apps.
The latest disclosures could also add to mounting public concern about how the technology sector collects and uses information, especially for those outside the US, who enjoy fewer privacy protections than Americans. A January poll for the Washington Post showed 69% of US adults were already concerned about how tech companies such as Google used and stored their information.
The documents do not make it clear how much of the information that can be taken from apps is routinely collected, stored or searched, nor how many users may be affected. The NSA says it does not target Americans and its capabilities are deployed only against “valid foreign intelligence targets”.
The documents do set out in great detail exactly how much information can be collected from widely popular apps. One document held on GCHQ’s internal Wikipedia-style guide for staff details what can be collected from different apps. Though it uses Android apps for most of its examples, it suggests much of the same data could be taken from equivalent apps on iPhone or other platforms.
The GCHQ documents set out examples of what information can be extracted from different ad platforms, using perhaps the most popular mobile phone game of all time, Angry Birds – which has reportedly been downloaded more than 1.7bn times – as a case study.
From some app platforms, relatively limited, but identifying, information such as exact handset model, the unique ID of the handset, software version, and similar details are all that are transmitted.
Other apps choose to transmit much more data, meaning the agency could potentially net far more. One mobile ad platform, Millennial Media, appeared to offer particularly rich information. Millennial Media’s website states it has partnered with Rovio on a special edition of Angry Birds; with Farmville maker Zynga; with Call of Duty developer Activision, and many other major franchises.
Rovio, the maker of Angry Birds, said it had no knowledge of any NSA or GCHQ programs looking to extract data from its apps users.
“Rovio doesn’t have any previous knowledge of this matter, and have not been aware of such activity in 3rd party advertising networks,” said Saara Bergström, Rovio’s VP of marketing and communications. “Nor do we have any involvement with the organizations you mentioned [NSA and GCHQ].”
Millennial Media did not respond to a request for comment.
In December, the Washington Post reported on how the NSA could make use of advertising tracking files generated through normal internet browsing – known as cookies – from Google and others to get information on potential targets.
However, the richer personal data available to many apps, coupled with real-time geolocation, and the uniquely identifying handset information many apps transmit give the agencies a far richer data source than conventional web-tracking cookies.
“They are gathered in bulk, and are currently our single largest type of events,” the document stated.
The ability to obtain targeted intelligence by hacking individual handsets has been well documented, both through several years of hacker conferences and previous NSA disclosures in Der Spiegel, and both the NSA and GCHQ have extensive tools ready to deploy against iPhone, Android and other phone platforms.
GCHQ’s targeted tools against individual smartphones are named after characters in the TV series The Smurfs. An ability to make the phone’s microphone ‘hot’, to listen in to conversations, is named “Nosey Smurf”. High-precision geolocation is called “Tracker Smurf”, power management – an ability to stealthily activate an a phone that is apparently turned off – is “Dreamy Smurf”, while the spyware’s self-hiding capabilities are codenamed “Paranoid Smurf”.
Those capability names are set out in a much broader 2010 presentation that sheds light on spy agencies’ aspirations for mobile phone interception, and that less-documented mass-collection abilities.
The cover sheet of the document sets out the team’s aspirations:
Another slide details weak spots in where data flows from mobile phone network providers to the wider internet, where the agency attempts to intercept communications. These are locations either within a particular network, or international roaming exchanges (known as GRXs), where data from travellers roaming outside their home country is routed.
These are particularly useful to the agency as data is often only weakly encrypted on such networks, and includes extra information such as handset ID or mobile number – much stronger target identifiers than usual IP addresses or similar information left behind when PCs and laptops browse the internet.
The NSA said its phone interception techniques are only used against valid targets, and are subject to stringent legal safeguards.
“The communications of people who are not valid foreign intelligence targets are not of interest to the National Security Agency,” said a spokeswoman in a statement.
“Any implication that NSA’s foreign intelligence collection is focused on the smartphone or social media communications of everyday Americans is not true. Moreover, NSA does not profile everyday Americans as it carries out its foreign intelligence mission. We collect only those communications that we are authorized by law to collect for valid foreign intelligence and counterintelligence purposes – regardless of the technical means used by the targets.
“Because some data of US persons may at times be incidentally collected in NSA’s lawful foreign intelligence mission, privacy protections for US persons exist across the entire process concerning the use, handling, retention, and dissemination of data. In addition, NSA actively works to remove extraneous data, to include that of innocent foreign citizens, as early as possible in the process.
“Continuous and selective publication of specific techniques and tools lawfully used by NSA to pursue legitimate foreign intelligence targets is detrimental to the security of the United States and our allies – and places at risk those we are sworn to protect.”
The NSA declined to respond to a series of queries on how routinely capabilities against apps were deployed, or on the specific minimisation procedures used to prevent US citizens’ information being stored through such measures.
GCHQ declined to comment on any of its specific programs, but stressed all of its activities were proportional and complied with UK law.
“It is a longstanding policy that we do not comment on intelligence matters,” said a spokesman.
“Furthermore, all of GCHQ’s work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework that ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight, including from the Secretary of State, the Interception and Intelligence Services Commissioners and the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. All our operational processes rigorously support this position.”
• A separate disclosure on Wednesday, published by Glenn Greenwald and NBC News, gave examples of how GCHQ was making use of its cable-tapping capabilities to monitor YouTube and social media traffic in real-time.
GCHQ’s cable-tapping and internet buffering capabilities , codenamed Tempora, were disclosed by the Guardian in June, but the new documents published by NBC from a GCHQ presentation titled “Psychology: A New Kind of SIGDEV” set out a program codenamed Squeaky Dolphin which gave the British spies “broad real-time monitoring” of “YouTube Video Views”, “URLs ‘Liked’ on Facebook” and “Blogspot/Blogger Visits”.
A further slide noted that “passive” – a term for large-scale surveillance through cable intercepts – give the agency “scalability”.
The means of interception mean GCHQ and NSA could obtain data without any knowledge or co-operation from the technology companies. Spokespeople for the NSA and GCHQ told NBC all programs were carried out in accordance with US and UK law.
When a smartphone user opens Angry Birds, the popular game application, and starts slinging birds at chortling green pigs, spies may be lurking in the background to snatch data revealing the player’s location, age, sex and other personal information, according to secret British intelligence documents.
In their globe-spanning surveillance for terrorism suspects and other targets, the National Security Agency and its British counterpart have been trying to exploit a basic byproduct of modern telecommunications: With each new generation of mobile phone technology, ever greater amounts of personal data pour onto networks where spies can pick it up.
According to dozens of previously undisclosed classified documents, among the most valuable of those unintended intelligence tools are so-called leaky apps that spew everything from users’ smartphone identification codes to where they have been that day.
The N.S.A. and Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters were working together on how to collect and store data from dozens of smartphone apps by 2007, according to the documents, provided by Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor. Since then, the agencies have traded recipes for grabbing location and planning data when a target uses Google Maps, and for vacuuming up address books, buddy lists, phone logs and the geographic data embedded in photos when someone sends a post to the mobile versions of Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn, Twitter and other services.
The eavesdroppers’ pursuit of mobile networks has been outlined in earlier reports, but the secret documents, shared by The New York Times, The Guardian and ProPublica, offer far more details of their ambitions for smartphones and the apps that run on them. The efforts were part of an initiative called “the mobile surge,” according to a 2011 British document, an analogy to the troop surges in Iraq and Afghanistan. One N.S.A. analyst’s enthusiasm was evident in the breathless title — “Golden Nugget!” — given to one slide for a top-secret 2010 talk describing iPhones and Android phones as rich resources, one document notes.
The scale and the specifics of the data haul are not clear. The documents show that the N.S.A. and the British agency routinely obtain information from certain apps, particularly some of those introduced earliest to cellphones. With some newer apps, including Angry Birds, the agencies have a similar capability, the documents show, but they do not make explicit whether the spies have put that into practice. Some personal data, developed in profiles by advertising companies, could be particularly sensitive: A secret 2012 British intelligence document says that spies can scrub smartphone apps that contain details like a user’s “political alignment” and sexual orientation.
President Obama announced new restrictions this month to better protect the privacy of ordinary Americans and foreigners from government surveillance, including limits on how the N.S.A. can view “metadata” of Americans’ phone calls — the routing information, time stamps and other data associated with calls. But he did not address the avalanche of information that the intelligence agencies get from leaky apps and other smartphone functions.
And while he expressed concern about advertising companies that collect information on people to send tailored ads to their mobile phones, he offered no hint that American spies routinely seize that data. Nothing in the secret reports indicates that the companies cooperate with the spy agencies to share the information; the topic is not addressed.
The agencies have long been intercepting earlier generations of cellphone traffic like text messages and metadata from nearly every segment of the mobile network — and, more recently, computer traffic running on Internet pipelines. Because those same networks carry the rush of data from leaky apps, the agencies have a ready-made way to collect and store this new resource. The documents do not address how many users might be affected, whether they include Americans, or how often, with so much information collected automatically, analysts would see personal data.
“N.S.A. does not profile everyday Americans as it carries out its foreign intelligence mission,” the agency said in a written response to questions about the program. “Because some data of U.S. persons may at times be incidentally collected in N.S.A.’s lawful foreign intelligence mission, privacy protections for U.S. persons exist across the entire process.” Similar protections, the agency said, are in place for “innocent foreign citizens.”
The British spy agency declined to comment on any specific program, but said all its activities complied with British law.
Two top-secret flow charts produced by the British agency in 2012 show incoming streams of information skimmed from smartphone traffic by the Americans and the British. The streams are divided into “traditional telephony” — metadata — and others marked “social apps,” “geo apps,” “http linking,” webmail, MMS and traffic associated with mobile ads, among others. (MMS refers to the mobile system for sending pictures and other multimedia, and http is the protocol for linking to websites.)
In charts showing how information flows from smartphones into the agency’s computers, analysts included questions to be answered by the data, including “Where was my target when they did this?” and “Where is my target going?”
As the program accelerated, the N.S.A. nearly quadrupled its budget in a single year, to $767 million in 2007 from $204 million, according to a top-secret Canadian analysis written around the same time.
Even sophisticated users are often unaware of how smartphones offer a unique opportunity for one-stop shopping for information about them. “By having these devices in our pockets and using them more and more,” said Philippe Langlois, who has studied the vulnerabilities of mobile phone networks and is the founder of the Paris-based company Priority One Security, “you’re somehow becoming a sensor for the world intelligence community.”
Smartphones almost seem to make things too easy. Functioning as phones — making calls and sending texts — and as computers — surfing the web and sending emails — they generate and also rely on data. One secret report shows that just by updating Android software, a user sent more than 500 lines of data about the phone’s history and use onto the network.
Such information helps mobile ad companies, for example, create detailed profiles of people based on how they use their mobile device, where they travel, what apps and websites they open, and other factors. Advertising firms might triangulate web shopping data and browsing history to guess whether someone is wealthy or has children, for example.
The N.S.A. and the British agency busily scoop up this data, mining it for new information and comparing it with their lists of intelligence targets.
One secret 2010 British document suggests that the agencies collect such a huge volume of “cookies” — the digital traces left on a mobile device or a computer when a target visits a website — that classified computers were having trouble storing it all.
“They are gathered in bulk, and are currently our single largest type of events,” the document says.
The two agencies displayed a particular interest in Google Maps, which is accurate to within a few yards or better in some locations. Intelligence agencies collect so much data from the app that “you’ll be able to clone Google’s database” of global searches for directions, according to a top-secret N.S.A. report from 2007.
“It effectively means that anyone using Google Maps on a smartphone is working in support of a G.C.H.Q. system,” a secret 2008 report by the British agency says.
(In December, The Washington Post, citing the Snowden documents, reported that the N.S.A. was using metadata to track cellphone locations outside the United States and was using ad cookies to connect Internet addresses with physical locations.)
In another example, a secret 20-page British report dated 2012 includes the computer code needed for plucking the profiles generated when Android users play Angry Birds. The app was created by Rovio Entertainment, of Finland, and has been downloaded more than a billion times, the company has said.
Rovio drew public criticism in 2012 when researchers claimed that the app was tracking users’ locations and gathering other data and passing it to mobile ad companies. In a statement on its website, Rovio says that it may collect its users’ personal data, but that it abides by some restrictions. For example, the statement says, “Rovio does not knowingly collect personal information from children under 13 years of age.”
The secret report noted that the profiles vary depending on which of the ad companies — which include Burstly and Google’s ad services, two of the largest online advertising businesses — compiles them. Most profiles contain a string of characters that identifies the phone, along with basic data on the user like age, sex and location. One profile notes whether the user is currently listening to music or making a call, and another has an entry for household income.
Google declined to comment for this article, and Burstly did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Saara Bergstrom, a Rovio spokeswoman, said that the company had no knowledge of the intelligence programs. “Nor do we have any involvement with the organizations you mentioned,” Ms. Bergstrom said, referring to the N.S.A. and the British spy agency.
Another ad company creates far more intrusive profiles that the agencies can retrieve, the report says. The apps that generate those profiles are not identified, but the company is named as Millennial Media, which has its headquarters in Baltimore.
In securities filings, Millennial documented how it began working with Rovio in 2011 to embed ad services in Angry Birds apps running on iPhones, Android phones and other devices.
According to the report, the Millennial profiles contain much of the same information as the others, but several categories listed as “optional,” including ethnicity, marital status and sexual orientation, suggest that much wider sweeps of personal data may take place.
Millennial Media declined to comment for this article.
Possible categories for marital status, the secret report says, include single, married, divorced, engaged and “swinger”; those for sexual orientation are straight, gay, bisexual and “not sure.” It is unclear whether the “not sure” category exists because so many phone apps are used by children, or because insufficient data may be available.
There is no explanation of precisely how the ad company defined the categories, whether users volunteered the information, or whether the company inferred it by other means. Nor is there any discussion of why all that information would be useful for marketing — or intelligence.
The agencies have had occasional success — at least by their own reckoning — when they start with something closer to a traditional investigative tip or lead. The spies say that tracking smartphone traffic helped break up a bomb plot by Al Qaeda in Germany in 2007, and the N.S.A. bragged that to crack the plot, it wove together mobile data with emails, log-ins and web traffic. Similarly, mining smartphone data helped lead to arrests of members of a drug cartel hit squad for the 2010 murder of an employee of an American Consulate in Mexico.
But the data, whose volume is soaring as mobile devices have begun to dominate the technological landscape, is a crushing amount of information for the spies to sift through. As smartphone data builds up in N.S.A. and British databases, the agencies sometimes seem a bit at a loss on what to do with it all, the documents show. A few isolated experiments provide hints as to how unwieldy it can be.
In 2009, the American and British spy agencies each undertook a brute-force analysis of a tiny sliver of their cellphone databases. Crunching just one month of N.S.A. cellphone data, a secret report said, required 120 computers and turned up 8,615,650 “actors” — apparently callers of interest. A similar run using three months of British data came up with 24,760,289 actors.
“Not necessarily straightforward,” the report said of the analysis. The agencies’ extensive computer operations had trouble sorting through the slice of data. Analysts were “dealing with immaturity,” the report said, encountering computer memory and processing problems. The report made no mention of anything suspicious in the enormous lumps of data.
“We appreciated the opportunity to share directly with the President our principles on government surveillance that we released last week and we urge him to move aggressively on reform,” they said in a brief group statement.
Notably, that release did not include much of what the White House had said would be on the agenda — including efforts to get the federal Obamacare website working smoothly, federal information-technology improvements, boosting the economy and fighting income inequality.
Instead, they zeroed in on their biggest source of frustration with the White House: the unprecedented electronic spying on Americans and people overseas who are not suspected of criminal or terrorist acts or connections.
The White House, which is in the middle of reviewing the National Security Agency’s policies and has vowed to make some changes to American surveillance, said it would take the CEOs’ concerns into account.
U.S. President Barack Obama looks up during a meeting with executives from leading tech companies at the White House on Tuesday, December 17, 2013.
But the White House summary of the meeting, unlike the version from the CEOs, insists that the group “discussed a number of issues of shared importance to the federal government and the tech sector, including the progress being made to improve performance and capacity issues with HeathCare.Gov.”
Obama also announced that former Microsoft executive Kurt DelBene will take over from Jeff Zients as the top troubleshooter for the botched federal health insurance website.
And “the group discussed the challenges (surrounding) federal IT procurement,” according to the White House.
Here is how Obama’s press office summarized the NSA component of the meeting — the only part the CEOs described in their summary:
“Finally, the group discussed the national security and economic impacts of unauthorized intelligence disclosures. This was an opportunity for the President to hear from CEOs directly as we near completion of our review of signals intelligence programs, building on the feedback we’ve received from the private sector in recent weeks and months. The President made clear his belief in an open, free, and innovative internet and listened to the group’s concerns and recommendations, and made clear that we will consider their input as well as the input of other outside stakeholders as we finalize our review of signals intelligence programs.”
During a White House meeting called to brief America’s largest tech companies today about government overreach in electronic surveillance, President Barack Obama changed the subject – angering some meeting participants by shifting gears to address the failed launch of healthcare.gov.
‘That wasn’t what we came for,’ a vice-president of a company whose CEO attended told MailOnline. ‘We really didn’t care for a PR pitch about how the administration is trying to salvage its internal health care tech nightmare.’
One executive said that meeting participants were dead-set against straying from the principal focus of the meeting – the uncomfortable and legally untenable position they are in when the National Security Agency demands access to their digital records.
The White House said in advance that the meeting would include a discussion of healthcare.gov, but the company executive said the only subject that mattered to the participants was the NSA.
‘He basically hijacked the meeting,’ the executive said. ‘We all told the White House that we were only there to talk about what the NSA was up to and how it affects us.’
All smiles: Obama joked with tech executives before focusing on Obamacare and relegating the companies’ NSA concerns to second-tier status
Yet Obama, according to insiders, repeatedly peppered the discussion with reassuring words about how the Affordable Care Act’s marquee website was well on its way to becoming functional.
The change was so noticeable that an AFP/Getty photographer assigned to cover the event noted in a photo caption only that Obama was there to ‘meet with executives from leading tech companies to discuss progress with healthcare.gov.’
One executive of a company represented at the meeting told The Guardian that a change of focus ‘is not going to happen. We are there to talk about the NSA.’
Another said issues other than intelligence agencies’ snooping are ‘peripheral.’
The unnamed business leader told the paper that ‘there’s only one subject that people really want to discuss right now.’
The 15 companies, including Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Netflix, Twitter, Apple and Etsy, issued a one-line joint statement after the 150-minute marathon meeting in the White House’s Roosevelt Room, saying that they ‘appreciated the opportunity to share directly with the president our principles on government surveillance that we released last week and we urge him to move aggressively on reform.’
There was no mention in the statement of healthcare.gov.
Hands on the table, Joe: Vice President Biden was seated next to one of the meeting’s few female participants, Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer. Biden made headlines yesterday for his roving paws at a holiday party
A serious matter: Reporters on Tuesday put White House press secretary Jay Carney on the spot about about a federal judge who declared that the NSA’s bulk collection of millions of Americans’ telephone records is unconstitutional
But in its statement to reporters about the meeting, the White House played up the significance of focusing portions of the get-together on how to fix the government’s disastrous health insurance website.
Obama and the executives ‘discussed a number of issues … including the progress being made to improve performance and capacity issues with heathcare.gov,’ the statement began.
After announcing a changing of the guard in the push to repair the site, the White House noted that ‘[f]inally, the group discussed the national security and economic impacts of unauthorized intelligence disclosures.’
A group of eight tech companies, including some in attendance on Tuesday, asked Obama last week for an overhaul of the surveillance laws that govern the NSA.
‘The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual – rights that are enshrined in our Constitution,” they wrote in an open letter to the president.
Distraction: Obama took time out from the supposedly NSA-focused meeting to announce that Jeff Zients (L) would be replaced as his healthcare website czar
A federal judge ruled Monday that their concerns about government spy programs are well-founded.
He declared that the NSA’s broad seizures of telecommunications companies’ call records violate the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That provision protects Americans from unreasonable searches.
In Tuesday’s meeting, Yahoo! CEO Marissa Meyer was seated next to Vice President Joe Biden, whose wandering hands were the subject of nationwide jokes on Monday.
The vice president was photographed at a recent holiday party posing with a reporter, who was pictured making sure his grasp didn’t stray north of her waist.
The Vietnamese government is increasingly censoring its citizens online. The country’s capital, Hanoi, is shown in the above photograph. (Credit: Declan McCullagh/CNET)
Vietnam is joining the ranks of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and China, as being known as a country that censors its citizens on social media. The government introduced a new law this week that fines people $4,740 for posting comments critical of the government on social-networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, according to Reuters.
Some people could also face extensive prison terms. While the law is unclear about what kind of speech sparks government censorship, it does say that “propaganda against the state” and “reactionary ideology” would elicit fines. Vietnam’s communist government has increasingly censored its citizens’ free speech over the past few years. According to Reuters, arrests and convictions for criticizing the government online have skyrocketed the last four years.
Human rights group Amnesty International has condemned the Vietnamese government for its crackdown on free speech. In a report published earlier this month, the group lists 75 prisoners of conscience in Vietnam who were jailed for alleged “propaganda” against the government. Some of these prisoners face harsh conditions, like solitary confinement and torture.
“Vietnam is fast turning into one of South East Asia’s largest prisons for human rights defenders and other activists,” Amnesty International Vietnam researcher Rupert Abbot said in a statement.
“The government’s alarming clampdown on free speech has to end.” Advocacy group Reporters Without Borders also named Vietnam an “enemy of the Internet” for the last several years in a row. In its most recent report published in March, the group said the Vietnamese government is one of the most repressive in terms of Internet censorship and extensive government surveillance. Vietnam isn’t the only country that censors its residents on social media sites.
Several countries in the Middle East, like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Bahrain, either censor or forbid social networking. China is also known for extreme censorship when it comes to social media and blogging.
In a recent Global Transparency Report, Google said that it has seen an alarming incidence in government requests to gather information on their citizens. Some of the top offending countries in Google’s report include the US, India, and Germany.