According to information once again leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency secretly targets suspects using the same tool that allows advertisers to target consumers — small files known as “cookies.” In fact, the Washington Post has released more classified slides, revealing that the NSA has found a way to use Google’s own cookies (“GooglePREF”) to pinpoint users.
According to The Post, Google’s cookies don’t track personal information, such as name or email address. However, they can identify a user’s browser activity, which is why some users may see an ad for a product they’ve searched for previously on the web.
In response to privacy concerns, Google allows users to opt-out of some cookie-tracking (instructions here).
“On a macro level, ‘we need to track everyone everywhere for advertising’ translates into ‘the government being able to track everyone everywhere,” UC Berkeley Law Lecturer Chris Hoofnagle told The Post. “It’s hard to avoid.”
As with many of the revelations about NSA spying, the impacts to individual users are uncertain. While the NSA does collect user information in bulk, it often requires a judge’s approval to query the database and analyze it. However, there have been several instances of privacy violations, including agents spying on ex-lovers and targeting suspects that judges would later find to be unreasonable.
Cookies would potentially allow the NSA to track individuals’ surfing habits and, perhaps, use of Google products, such as Maps. The slides show that the NSA shares this targeted information with a handful of internal divisions and with its British counterpart, GCHQ. By combining information from cellphone location data logs, call logs, and email habits, the agency might be able to better target suspects from the volumes of information it collects every day.
It is unclear whether pending federal legislation would impact this particular tactic. A suite of laws propose to end bulk information collection, create more oversight, and release gag orders. However, leveraging Google cookies appears more targeted than previous leaks about indiscriminate collection of user data.
In any case, Congress goes on holiday break soon, so any reforms will have to compete for attention in the busy new year. Good luck with that.