Tags: google | nsa | cookies | tracking

NSA Uses Google Tracking 'Cookies' to Pinpoint Targets

Image: NSA Uses Google Tracking 'Cookies' to Pinpoint Targets

Wednesday, 11 Dec 2013 11:27 AM

By Drew MacKenzie

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The National Security Agency has been secretly using  Google tracking "cookies" as part of its spying program, according to information released by fugitive leaker Edward Snowden.

The Washington Post reports that internal agency presentation slides provided by Snowden reveal the NSA is employing the same Internet tracking tool that companies use to keep tabs on consumers for advertising purposes. The slides show how the agency can use these tracking techniques to pinpoint targets for potential hacking operations.

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The NSA and its British equivalent GCHQ are said to be using the same kind of tracking files or "cookies" that advertising networks place on computers to discover the sites that people visit on the Web.

According to the Post, the two agencies are employing a Google-specific tracking mechanism known as the PREF cookie, which contains numeric codes that enable Web sites to uniquely identify a person's browser and keep track of his or her Web history.

The PREF cookie allows NSA to send out software to "enable remote exploitation," meaning that it can hack into a person's computer and use it for "offensive" purposes.

The NSA's Google cookie surveillance program is not aimed at searching through thousands of people for "suspicious behavior" by potential terrorists, rather it is designed to target people already under suspicion for tracking or hacking reasons.

"On a macro level, 'we need to track everyone everywhere for advertising' translates into 'the government being able to track everyone everywhere,'" Chris Hoofnagle, a lecturer in residence at UC Berkeley Law School, told the Post. "It's hard to avoid."

Although the cookie information can be obtained by the NSA with a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act order, it is not known how the agency actually receives it or whether the company is cooperating with the agency.

An NSA spokesman said in a statement, "As we've said before, NSA, within its lawful mission to collect foreign intelligence to protect the United States, uses intelligence tools to understand the intent of foreign adversaries and prevent them from bringing harm to innocent Americans."

For years, the use of commercial tracking tools to target consumers with advertisements have often come under attack by privacy activists, although advertisers say that cookies benefit consumers by giving them online ads specifically of interest to them.

The new disclosure that the NSA is "piggybacking" on Internet technologies could give them another reason to argue for severe cutbacks on commercial surveillance, the Post noted.

Google chief executive Larry Page recently joined other technology companies to urge the government to end bulk collection of data and install restrictions on court-ordered surveillance requests.

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