Report: NSA tracking privacy software users

The National Security Agency is secretly tracking Internet users who search for details about software to stay hidden online, according to a new report.

People looking to download the privacy software Tor or obtain the operating system Tails are targeted and tracked by the NSA, German public broadcaster ARD claimed in a report on Thursday. 

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Researchers discovered the NSA's rules for automatically capturing information about people who seek out the privacy programs by obtaining the computer code for the spy agency’s XKeyscore program.

Privacy programs such as Tor work by routing people’s Internet protocol (IP) addresses through a number of encrypted nodes to disguise users’ activity. Tor has been popular for online activists attempting to hide from oppressive regimes as well as hackers trying to keep their work secret and other people trying to hide their behavior online.

The software was originally developed by military researchers, and the nonprofit organization running it now still receives a significant amount of funding from the U.S. government.

Still, the NSA has made the software a target, since it allows people to hide from the agency’s gaze. An agency slideshow released last year claimed that Tor “stinks” and laid out ways to make some users less anonymous.

In a statement shared with The Hill, an NSA spokeswoman said the agency “collects only what it is authorized by law to collect for valid foreign intelligence purposes — regardless of the technical means used by foreign intelligence targets.”

“XKEYSCORE is an analytic tool that is used as a part of NSA's lawful foreign signals intelligence collection system,” the spokeswoman added. “Such tools have stringent oversight and compliance mechanisms built in at several levels. The use of XKEYSCORE allows the agency to help defend the nation and protect U.S. and allied troops abroad.”

The German broadcaster did not specify whether it obtained the code from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Some analysts have speculated that could be a sign that there is a second leaker at the spy agency who is giving information to media outlets. If true, that could lead to a new trove of documents larger than the one revealed by Snowden.