Rory E. H. Appleton: NSA game surveillance shows nothing is private

The Fresno BeeFebruary 1, 2014 

NSA game surveillance shows nothing is private. Last week, The Fresno Bee and other news organizations reported that a new batch of top-secret documents indicate that the National Security Agency and Britain's Government Communication Headquarters are gathering personal information through cellphone applications.

My first reaction to the news was one of sheer panic: government agencies know how bad I am at "Angry Birds."

I then wondered how this could possibly be necessary.

Most of information that can be gained by this type of surveillance is so insignificant that there doesn't seem to be any reason for it other than NSA boredom. I am talking about your age, gender, phone model and the high scores from your games. This has to be information that is readily available and completely useless to a government agency, right? If they know that my pig-hunting skills are lacking, then they can probably check with the DMV to get my age.

What is a little more distressing is the information gained by the leaks in Google Maps and the social media apps. The NSA can use the information retrieved from these apps to track your movements if you are a heavy social media user, as more and more people are these days.

When you send a picture to Facebook or Twitter, there is a trace amount of data that indicates your location. This can be used to pinpoint your exact position at the time of upload.

Facebook and Twitter have released statements indicating this information is now erased immediately after the upload, but I am not sure I believe that.

If you're an Android user like me, then you may have noticed a special gift in the most recent Facebook update. Facebook wants permission to read your text messages. It already uses your posts and Internet history to help tailor the site's advertising boxes to your personal needs, and I wonder if it will use your text messages for the same. I am going to test this theory by texting every contact I have "I want a chicken sandwich." If Facebook tells me to go to Chick-fil-A, we are all doomed.

This is only the most recent of a long list of silly NSA targets.

In December, the New York Times revealed documents that indicate that the NSA monitored the online game "World of Warcraft."

One of these top-secret documents refers to online games as a potential "target-rich environment" that would allow suspects a way to "hide in plain sight."

As a gamer, this cracked me up.

Online games already are heavily moderated by the companies that run them. They have to be in order to fix bugs or glitches in the game, remove negative players and protect the players' credit card information. I can't really think of a worse place for a person to say something that he or she wanted to be kept quiet.

I would love to know just how deep this rabbit hole went. Did they have NSA operatives go into deep cover in a "World of Warcraft" server? Was the agent questing with his target in Teldrassil before casually asking if the target hated America?

I think the most important information that can be gained by all of this whistleblowing is the simple fact that nothing is private in a digital world.

If you check into a restaurant on Foursquare, it is pretty safe to assume that your buddies aren't the only people that know where you are.

Your shopping habits, conversations and pictures aren't safe.

Privacy just doesn't exist in the traditional sense of the word. I try not to let it bother me. I accept it as the way things are and plan accordingly.


Rory E.H. Appleton is the associate editor for and a journalism student at Fresno State. You can reach him at or @RoryDoesPhonics on Twitter.

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