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Smartphone apps open a new window into the private lives of Americans

New reports show that the National Security Agency and its British counterpart have been greedily soaking in the tiniest details of citizens’ lives through popular cellphone apps.

Apparently, it isn’t enough that the agencies have been intercepting such cellphone traffic as text messages and metadata on every call from every segment of the mobile network, along with computer traffic running on Internet pipelines.

Those captivated by the popular game application Angry Birds should consider that in addition to pitting the birds against the pigs, the game and other smartphone applications open the door to government snooping on their private lives.

President Obama announced new restrictions on the NSA designed to better protect the privacy of ordinary Americans and foreigners from government surveillance. He is willing to limit how the NSA can view metadata on phone calls, but he didn’t include limits on information obtained through Angry Birds, Google Maps and other popular applications.

In fact, he didn’t mention at all that the intelligence services acquire data from what are called “leaky apps” and other smartphone functions. Leaky apps give off a wide array of information, from smartphone identification codes to where users have been that day.

The latest revelation about how Americans’ data is being vacuumed up came, of course, from former NSA contractor Edward J. Snowden. The secret documents were shared with the New York Times, the Guardian and ProPublica.

The NSA and Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters have been working together for years on how to collect and store data from dozens of smartphone apps, according to the documents. The program is referred to as “the mobile surge.”

The documents released by Snowden, who is now tucked away in Russia, reveal what continue to be shocking details on how widespread the government’s efforts at data collection have been, and now we find out that seemingly innocent smartphone games have been part of that effort. The phones allow users’ locations, age, sex and other personal information to be tracked.

The governments have been tapping in to older apps for years, according to the documents. It’s not clear whether information has been swept up from newer apps.

Earlier revelations about the NSA’s snooping sparked a national discussion and led Obama to tinker with the program. It may be time for the president to have another talk about protecting privacy, this time involving Angry Birds.