The Washington Post has another story about domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency, this time involving the use of Internet “cookies,” which collect data about and can track users’ Internet searches and sites visited. Such tracking has been used by marketers and companies to create profiles of individuals for targeted behavioral advertising, which has its own implications for individual privacy, and now the cookies are being used by the NSA. The Washington Post received information from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The Post reports:
The National Security Agency is secretly piggybacking on the tools that enable Internet advertisers to track consumers, using “cookies” and location data to pinpoint targets for government hacking and to bolster surveillance.
The agency’s internal presentation slides, provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, show that when companies follow consumers on the Internet to better serve them advertising, the technique opens the door for similar tracking by the government. The slides also suggest that the agency is using these tracking techniques to help identify targets for offensive hacking operations.
For years, privacy advocates have raised concerns about the use of commercial tracking tools to identify and target consumers with advertisements. [...]
The revelation that the NSA is piggybacking on these commercial technologies could shift that debate, handing privacy advocates a new argument for reining in commercial surveillance.
According to the documents, the NSA and its British counterpart, GCHQ, are using the small tracking files or “cookies” that advertising networks place on computers to identify people browsing the Internet. The intelligence agencies have found particular use for a part of a Google-specific tracking mechanism known as the “PREF” cookie. These cookies typically don’t contain personal information, such as someone’s name or e-mail address, but they do contain numeric codes that enable Web sites to uniquely identify a person’s browser. [...]
Separately, the NSA is also using commercially gathered information to help it locate mobile devices around the world, the documents show. Many smartphone apps running on iPhones and Android devices, and the Apple and Google operating systems themselves, track the location of each device, often without a clear warning to the phone’s owner. This information is more specific than the broader location data the government is collecting from cellular phone networks, as reported by the Post last week.
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