The National Security Agency is using the tracking data intended for Google’s advertisers to locate its targets.
According to the Washington Post‘s new analysis of an internal presentation Edward Snowden leaked earlier in the year, the NSA has been using the numeric identifiers in Google’s “PREF” cookies for hacking.
A cookie is a small piece of data sent from a website that is stored in a user’s browser. In addition to customising browsing experiences on some sites, advertisers use them to target ads for specific audiences.
Google’s PREF cookie, short for “preferences,” contains information related to the user’s location and language.
The NSA, as well as its British counterpart GCHQ, used the numeric identifiers contained within these cookies to pinpoint their intended targets’ communications in a sea of data. The tactic is not used to determine possible people of interest, but is similar to placing a laser beam on the target of a missile strike.
The strike in this case refers to sending software to a computer in order to hack it and gain access to information.
In addition, the NSA has accessed information collected from mobile apps.
The Post reports that the leaked documents do not reveal whether or not Google is complicit.
Google CEO Larry Page, however, is part of the tech giant collective Reform Government Surveillance that debuted this week.
On its site Page is quoted as saying, “The security of users’ data is critical, which is why we’ve invested so much in encryption and fight for transparency around government requests for information…It’s time for reform and we urge the U.S. government to lead the way.”
A New York Times report found that the NSA may have secretly tapped Google’s fibre optic cables to gain access to information they used to track targets.
In October, The Guardian revealed that the NSA used cookies for Google’s third-party ad service DoubleClick.net. The used the data in attempts to identify users of the anonymous browsing tool Tor when they switched to regular browsing.
“On a macro level, ‘we need to track everyone everywhere for advertising’ translates into ‘the government being able to track everyone everywhere.’ It’s hard to avoid,” Chris Hoofnagle, a lecturer in residence at UC Berkley Law, told the Post.
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