Report: NSA 'piggybacking' off of online tracking tools

That National Security Agency uses Internet advertising tools to identify people online, according to a report from The Washington Post.

The agency "piggybacks" off of "cookies" — the small pieces of computer code that track consumers online to show them advertisements based on the websites they visit — the Post reports based on documents from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.


The NSA can use these cookies to identify and then hack into computers, according to the report.

"In addition to tracking Web visits, this cookie allows NSA to single out an individual's communications among the sea of Internet data in order to send out software that can hack that person's computer. ... The NSA's use of cookies isn't a technique for sifting through vast amounts of information to find suspicious behavior; rather, it lets NSA home in on someone already under suspicion."

The NSA also uses commercial online tracking tools that identify where a mobile device is, the Post reported.

"Many smartphone apps running on iPhones and Android devices, and the Apple and Google operating systems themselves, track the location of each device, often without a clear warning to the phone's owner."

The article notes that these revelations have implications for commercial privacy efforts and would bolster the arguments of privacy advocates, who warn against these kinds of tracking tools.

Currently, a group of tech companies, online ad groups and privacy advocates are working on a way to let users limit the way cookies track them online. Earlier this year, a coalition of tech groups and privacy advocates convened by the Commerce Department wrote a code of conduct regarding how mobile apps inform their users of apps' data collection and sharing practices.