What NSA snoops like about the iPhone

The agency can spy on Android devices and even the BlackBerry, but the iPhone is a favorite target, according to German news site Der Spiegel.

Lance Whitney Contributing Writer
Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books--one on Windows and another on LinkedIn.
Lance Whitney
2 min read
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The iPhone apparently is popular not just with consumers but with the National Security Agency, though for somewhat different reasons.

The NSA can retrieve user data on iOS, Android, and BlackBerry devices, according to internal classified documents obtained by German news outlet Der Spiegel. Special task forces within the agency have reportedly studied the three mobile platforms with the goal of accessing the contacts, instant messaging traffic, and location data found on the devices.

The classified documents don't point to any "large-scale" snooping of smartphone owners, but they do highlight the historic record of a few specific cases. And as detailed in a follow-up story published Monday by Der Spiegel, Apple's iPhone has been a favorite among NSA agents for several reasons.

NSA programs called "scripts" can spy on 38 different features of the iPhone operating system, though the documents -- at least one of which dates back to a 2010 NSA internal report -- list just iOS 3 and 4 as the accessible versions. These features include mapping, voice mail, photos, and such apps as Facebook, Yahoo Messenger, and Google Earth.

The NSA also uses the iPhone's backup files as another infiltration tool, according to Der Spiegel. These files contains such tidbits as contact lists, call logs, and drafts of text messages. And to grab this data, agents don't even need to hit the iPhone itself -- they can simply access the PC used to synchronize with the phone.

The location feature used by a variety of iOS apps is also popular with the NSA, Der Spiegel said, since it can pinpoint a user's position at a certain time. One NSA document noted that a person's whereabouts could be revealed over an extended period of time until Apple addressed the issue in iOS 4.3.3.

Agents have also tapped into photos taken by the iPhone, according to the documents obtained by Der Spiegel. As one example, a photo taken in January 2012 shows a former senior government official of a foreign country relaxing on his couch in front of his TV. He's taking pictures of himself ... with his iPhone. The man's name and other details were apparently revealed in the documents, but Der Spiegel chose not to print them.

Finally, one story recounted by Der Spiegel is telling of the NSA's predilection for smartphones.

Michael Hayden, former head of the NSA, recently told people at a conference that he and his wife were in an Apple store in Virginia. A salesman approached the two and touted the iPhone for its 400,000 available apps. Hayden said he turned to his wife and asked: "This kid doesn't know who I am, does he? Four-hundred-thousand apps means 400,000 possibilities for attacks."

CNET contacted the NSA for comment and will update the story with any further information.