NSA banks on Google cookies for pinpointing hacking targets.

Google cookies which are utilized by advertisers to track consumers are also being used by NSA for keeping a track on their hacking targets, and for strengthening their surveillance activities.

NSA uses Google cookies for pinpointing targets for hacking and surveillance-1

The presentation slides of NSA were posted by Washington Post which was brought to the scene by their former contractor and the whistle blower Edward Snowden show that these techniques are being used by NSA. Google has been using its cookies to track its consumers and to serve them more appropriately through advertisements. This technique has also opened ways for NSA through which they track targets for surveillance and hacking operations.

Advocates of the online privacy have always expressed their concerns reacted to the commercial tracking techniques which advertisers use for tracking their ad targets. This online industry is of the view that there tracking activities are quite beneficial for the consumers as it allows them to recognize the targets which will be interested in different ads.

Now with the revelation of the fact that NSA is riding on the shoulders of these techniques has opened a new argument for the privacy advocates.

According to the revealed documents, GCHQ and NSA is banking on the cookies and the tracking files that advertising networks induce into the systems of users to identify people who are browsing the net world. These agencies have found the Google’s PREF cookie technique as quite useful. This technique is a specific tracking mechanism that the company uses for identifying people. The cookies though do not contain personal information such as the name of the user etc., but they allow the websites to identify the user’s browser.

Apart from the tracking of web visits, the cookie also allows NSA to pinpoint the user’s communication in this massive internet world and also allows them to send a software into the system of the target for hacking it. The slides only suggest that the cookies enable NSA to carry out remote exploitation, but it does not give any detail of the other specific attacks that NSA carries out against targets.

According to Chris Hoornagle who is a lecturer of law, on a macro level:

  • “we need to track everyone everywhere for advertising’ translates into ‘the government being able to track everyone everywhere.”

The information that is shown in the slides do not suggest how NSA gets the PREF Cookies for their surveillance activities, but other documents have shown that the cookies information is included in the data which NSA can legally obtain under the FSA act. This means that the company are legally bound to assist the agency for this purpose.

Though NSA has given no comment related to their tactics that have been mentioned in the story, but their spokesman has given a statement that:

  • “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.

Google has declined to give any comments on this story, but the CEO Larry Page organized a meeting with the representatives of other tech giants this week. In the meeting it was asserted that the mass collection of the data of users should come to an end and there should be new limits imposed on the data that is asked for through court’s approval.

How are consumers tracked online?

Internet companies achieve this purpose by storing Cookies on the systems of the users. These cookies are installed by the web companies for advertising purpose. So it is basically a technique to drive the advertisement business which is getting more and more diverse on the internet. Very few people know the extent of the tracking that these companies do. In the same manner, they also track the activities that users perform using their cell phones. Though the mechanism for the collection of Data is invisible to all the users, but even those who try to block such activities through tools and options have limited success.

The advocates that have been working for securing privacy pushed the internet companies to adopt a do not collect o track policy but it has been discarded in a short time. The reason is the corporate merger between advertisers and the internet companies which serves as the soul of their profit driven business.

The Apple’s browser safari has already a system which blocks the cookies of the third parties which they have installed on different websites. When a user visits a site, these cookies pop up with advertisement and also enable the companies to identify the user activities. Mozilla Firefox is also working to develop this option. However this would enable the users to block the cookies which are driven from the services they use or the primary sites that they visit.

Google’s PREF Cookie

Google has a specific PREF cookies which it assigns when someone’s browser connects with any of the service that the company provides. This normally happens when the user directly utilizes a service of Google such as Maps or search. This also happens when there are embedded widgets on a site which belong to the social media platform of the company i.e. Google plus. This PREF cookie features a specific code that banks on the system of the user and allows the company to uniquely track the user and assess how the user uses Google products. Because of the vast usage of Google widgets and services, it is very likely that the web user has the PREF cookie on the system even though the user has not directly landed on a Google property.

This PREF cookies has been specifically mentioned in the internal slide of NSA along with some of the tactics and analytics that are involved in this method of tracking by NSA.

Well this revelation that NSA is using the Google cookies for tracking and hacking targets is not new and has been mentioned previously in a report from The Guardian which came in October.


Waqas

Waqas Amir is a Milan-based cybersecurity journalist with a passion for covering latest happenings in cyber security and tech world. In addition to being the founder of this website, Waqas is also into gaming, reading and investigative journalism.