Spy Software Available to the Public: There’s an App for That

Intelligence

Spy agencies have long been known for the programs they secretly install on your computer. (Or on Iran’s computers, at least.) But you might be surprised to know that the U.S. intelligence community has also made available an assortment of free spy software, apps, and databases designed for everything from keeping your children safe to locking down your operating system. The best part is that you won’t even have to buy General Alexander a beer after. Here are 5 things you can download from government computers without going to prison.

1 Android

No, the National Security Agency doesn’t have a secret background program running on your smartphone. (Well, they probably don’t, anyway.) But they do have software running on your phone all the same. In 2000, the National Security Agency developed Security-Enhanced Linux, a bundle of management upgrades for the Linux operating system. In the NSA’s own words: “NSA Security-enhanced Linux is a set of patches to the Linux kernel and some utilities to incorporate a strong, flexible mandatory access control (MAC) architecture into the major subsystems of the kernel.” Basically, the enhancements control user and software access to various files and processes. The software and source code were released under the GNU General Public License, which is important because it means developers have been able to vet the security enhancements for any funny spy business. (None was found.) In 2003, the software was integrated into the Linux kernel. That same year, a company called Android, Inc. began work on its own operating system for mobile devices. The foundation of this software? Linux. In 2005, Google bought Android. All of this means that owning an Android phone is like having the NSA in your pocket.

2 Child ID

In 2011, the Federal Bureau of Investigation released a simple but wonderful smartphone application called Child ID. The app enables parents to build personal profiles of their children consisting of things like eye color and height and weight. It also asks for a headshot of the child. (All of this data is stored locally—it doesn’t go into a government database.) In the hellish hours that would follow the disappearance of one’s child, the app allows parents to instantly email a pre-written, detailed profile to law enforcement officials, containing everything necessary to begin a missing-person search. Such a report could save valuable minutes or hours that might otherwise be spent digging around for good photos of children, and could make the difference in a terrifying, time-sensitive situation. The app also offers guidance for keeping your children safe.

3 The World Factbook

While the CIA hasn’t released an official mobile client for the World Factbook, dozens of such programs exist. The CIA World Factbook is an annual almanac published out of Langley that provides pretty much exactly what its title claims to offer—facts about the world. It was first compiled in 1975, and draws its information from dozens of sources. Planning an emergency run to the Faroe Islands? A glance at the fact book will reveal that Vikings first settled the islands in the 9th century, that 2.14% of the land is arable, that the country’s population is 47,511, and that the prime minister is called the Løgmaður. Plan accordingly.

4 The GEOINT App Store

In 2011, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency announced the GEOINT Applications Storefront, or GAS Station. There, members of the intelligence community can download any number of hundreds of useful apps for Android and iOS. As the NGA explained at the time, “Most apps are designed around simply bringing information to handheld devices, such as reports and maps, although some apps will allow users to create reports as well.” Today, the app store also features web-based and desktop software, and is notable in that it’s available on all three operational networks: the web, SIPRNet, and JWICS. Those of us who aren’t spies aren’t left entirely in the cold, however. The NGA also hosts such online services as the GeoNames WMS Viewer (a visual database of eight million geographical names of five million non-U.S. features of the planet, from nations to airports) and several useful tools for map-heads from its Office of Geomatics.

5 Anonymous Tip Line

Last year, the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations created an anonymous online tip service. According to Special Agent Patrick Brom, detachment commander of Sheppard Air Force Base OSI, “Before now, we really had no true way for people wanting to report a potential tip to remain anonymous. With these new applications, anybody reporting a tip has the ability to remain 100 percent anonymous and have their concerns addressed in a timely manner.” The service is available by way of SMS and the web, and also through an Android and iOS app called TipSubmit Mobile (which also connects users with such agencies as the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the U.S. Border Patrol).

David Brown is a regular contributor to Clearance Jobs. He is currently at work on his next book, One Inch From Earth, which tells the story of scientists who study the outer planets of the solar system. He can be found online at http://dwb.io.