The NSA is using advertising data to spy on targets

Giuseppe Macri Tech Editor
Font Size:

The advertising tools of the Internet have become spying weapons for the NSA, according to information leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The Washington Post reports the agency is now using web browser “cookies” to track, surveil, and hack potential targets.

Cookies are pieces of personal information automatically saved to your computer when you visit a website. They record what you view on the site, and advertisers use them to target online consumers by personalizing the ads they see. Cookies carry codes that can identify specific web browsers.

Recently published slides that were part of the information leaked by Snowden reveal the NSA, along with its British counterpart the U.K. Government Communications Headquarters, secretly uses these commercial avenues to spy on, and even attack, targets.

An NSA favorite listed specifically in the slides are the Google “PREF” cookies. Google has come under increased scrutiny by Internet privacy advocates in for continually updating its privacy agreement to allow more personal information to be used by advertisers.

According to the documents, the agency doesn’t use cookies to engage in widespread surveillance and data mining similar to programs like PRISM and MUSCULAR leaked earlier this year. Cookie data is used against specifically identified targets for observation and hacking.

The documents also show the NSA is capturing information gathered by commercial apps on smartphones, many of which track the location data of users’ phones as part of background functions.

None of the slides specifically state how the NSA obtains cookie information, which likely comes from working with companies like Google directly or obtaining warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

When asked, Google declined to comment on the Post article, and the NSA responded with the following 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.”

Follow Giuseppe on Twitter