In another recent revelation by whistleblower Edward Snowden, it was found that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been tracking 'its targets' by their cookies and location data. While online marketers take the cookie information to provide tailor-made ads to target individuals, the NSA on the other hand will be using the information to boost its surveillance of the target.
Snowden recently leaked information that NSA's Special Source Operations (SSO) works with private companies to take data as it flows over the internet and from technology companies such as Google,reported The Sydney Morning Herald.
The report revealed that NSA was sharing "logins, cookies, and GooglePREFID" with another NSA division called Tailored Access Operations, which engages in offensive hacking operations. SSO also shares the information with the British intelligence agency GCHQ.
But what is a cookie, what does it do and how can it harm someone? Let's answer those questions:
What is a cookie?
A cookie is a very small text file that is placed on an internet user's hard drive. It is generated by a web page server, which is basically the computer that operates a web site. The information the cookie contains is set by the server and is used by the server, whenever the user visits the site.
History of cookies
The choice of the word 'cookie' appears to have come from the American tradition of giving and sharing edible cookies. In 1995, the Netscape Communications Corporation developed the word. Cookie comes from 'magic cookie', a term in programming languages for a piece of information shared between co-operating pieces of software.
How can cookie affect individuals?
Usually a server cannot set a cookie for a domain that it is not a member of but often users find cookies from websites that they have never visited. These cookies are usually set by companies that sell internet advertising on behalf of other websites. The information can be collected on users surfing habits.
Though cookie typically can give out personal information, such as someone's name or email address, it does contain numeric codes that enable websites to uniquely identify a person's browser. In addition to tracking web visits, the PREFID allows the NSA to single out an individual's communications among the sea of internet data, in order to send out softwares that can hack that person's computer.
Did you know NSA is also tracking you through mobile Apps?
The recent Snowden leak also has found that NSA is collecting location data transmitted by mobile apps to support ad-targeting efforts in bulk. Many mobile apps and operating systems use location-based services to help users find restaurants or other establishments. Even when GPS is disabled, most smartphones determine their location using signals from Wi-Fi networks or cellular towers. These information can be monitored and used by NSA for carrying out surveillance operations.