Down Home: Angry Birds, spies & my grandson

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The government may be using my grandson to spy on me.

According to an article in the British newspaper, The Guardian, the United States’ National Security Agency and the United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters “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.”

Apparently, some—maybe many—of the zillions of apps downloaded by owners of smart phones and digital tablets aren’t very secure. So, the American and British spy agencies can use them to find out about the owners of those devices. The Guardian claims the NSA and GCHQ can exploit unsecure apps to learn the owner’s “age, gender and location” and even other secret stuff you wouldn’t want me to write about in a column like this.

Hacking into games

As best I can tell, the spies can hack into the apps and then figure out where owners go (via the GPS programs), what they look at (through photos they take) and what they’re interested in (thanks to browsing history and use of other apps). The composite could create particularly accurate—not to mention frighteningly invasive—portraits of average citizens.

I couldn’t figure out if the article mentioned Angry Birds because it’s an astoundingly ubiquitous app or because it’s a particularly leaky app. Either way, I guess they’ve got me. My phone and tablet both contain the original Angry Birds game and the sequel, Angry Birds Seasons.

If Angry Birds is the NSA’s and GCHQ’s best avenue for spying on me, their window of opportunity is relatively narrow. I almost never play the games. That’s not because I’m impervious to their addictive charms. It’s because I have the eye-hand coordination of a wooly mammoth. Angry Birds drove me batty ages ago, and I practically never free them up and let them fly.

Except when I’m with Ezra, my grandson.

Now, I know Ezra loves me. When we’re not together, he asks his mama, Lindsay, about Jody and Marvo—his grandmother Joanna and me. He even asks her to call us up on one of those video programs where we can look at each other and talk. But when he and I get together, the second he sees me, he asks one direct question: “Where’s your iPad?” The boy loves to sit on the couch with his mama’s daddy and play games.

Actually, his favorite idea is to sit beside me, with one of us holding my tablet and the other holding my phone, both playing games. And what he’s very recently figured out is we can play the same game at the same time, side by side. So, we might both play Angry Birds, but it might be WhackAMole, Waterslide, Air Hockey or 7 Words.

Our profile laid bare

Actually, if the spies snoop on Ezra and me through my apps, I’m not too worried. Here are the main things they’re likely to find out:

Location. His living room on the edge of the Texas Hill Country or my den not far from DFW International Airport.

Age. This will be worthy of the spies’ best snooping. Our average age is 30, which is far, far, far from accurate for either of us.

Interests. Very simple video games. And occasionally, if they can “see” that far, playgrounds and zoos, as well as short snippets of YouTube videos of Thomas the Tank Engine.

Ability. If the spies can determine fingerprints on touchpad devices, they’ll soon learn I’m better at these games than Ezra. But I’ve got 54 years on him. (That’s a clue to the age question.) He’ll probably catch up on the coordination games sometime this year and then move even with me on the word games shortly after he starts reading.

Attention span. Extremely short. Ezra wants to change devices (“Here, you take the phone; I want the iPad. … Now it’s your iPad; I want the phone.”) approximately every 17 seconds.

How others respond to us. The answer to this depends entirely upon whether the spies can hear through the devices. If so, they’ll learn Ezra and I live on a fairly short leash. Inevitably, they’ll hear a female voice say, “You’ve got five minutes, and then it’s going to be time to put the iPad and phone away.”

The government’s—I guess now it’s actually the governments’—ability to spy on citizens is one of the most important social and political issues of our times. The ability of others, particularly people with power, to know the most intimate details of our lives is a major concern.

God knows even more

Inevitably, an issue like this pushes me to think about the theological parallels. None of us can hide, guard and protect ultimate secrets. God knows not only where we go and what we do with a smart phone, but every thought we think. And God doesn’t need to hack Angry Birds to find out.

Fortunately, God not only is all-knowing, but also righteous and chastening, gracious and merciful with the intimate details of our lives.

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