What the NSA's use of Angry Birds will mean for other developers

Shane Schick

There are probably a number of app developers who would like to fling something painful at Rovio. And you could hardly blame them.

Not that the creators of Angry Birds would be the only targets. Since the New York Times reported that the NSA and a similar organization in Britain have been culling personal data via smartphone apps, the floodgates for criticism and even hacking have been blown wide open. Here's the key information from the Times story:

"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, telephone logs and the geographic data embedded in photographs when someone sends a post to the mobile versions of Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn, Twitter and other Internet services."

Developers have already been under pressure by U.S. privacy officials and industry groups to be more proactive about demonstrating mobile app transparency. This scandal is not going to help matters. There may even be a few consumers who begin seriously reconsidering downloading a variety of apps that seek various forms of permissions. Of course, the majority will probably let this blow over, given that Edward Snowden has already shown how the NSA has been snooping through telephone calls and almost any other available channel. As apps become more popular, it's perhaps only natural that they should be one of those channels.

What makes the spying issue more troublesome, though, is the need to collect more data through legitimate means as part of contemporary monetization strategies. If developers are increasingly moving away from paid downloads, in-app purchases and in-app advertising are the obvious means of generating income. As FierceDeveloper has demonstrated through our ongoing coverage, however, it's only through the effective use of mobile analytics that developers can create more contextualized, relevant ads or purchasing experiences for their customers. That means all the buddy lists, addresses and demographic information that the NSA and its fellow spy agencies want is equally valuable to developers as well.

In-app purchasing or ads may make apps and mobile games appear "free," but over time consumers may come to see the personal data they offer up as far more expensive than a 99 cent download. They might blame developers for the fact the NSA and others may delve into that data, but the value of the app experience--particularly apps that focus on entertainment--will have to be higher than ever before. We talk about casual gaming on smartphones, but as our collective understanding of surveillance strategies increases, there may soon seem nothing casual about downloading and regularly using a mobile app. --Shane