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NSA uses Google Web browser cookies for targeted hacks, leaked documents reveal

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Think all of those advertising cookies installed on your browser are being used by the government to track people and hack into their computers? You’re not paranoid – you’re right.

From the latest revelation from the Edward Snowden leaked document cache, the Washington Post reports that the National Security Agency and its sister spy organization in the UK, GCHQ, uses Google Web cookies to identify specific users who are then hit with hacking software.

Google’s so-called PREF cookie, which is used to “help personalize ads,” according to the company, and for saving user preferences, like default language, is installed on Web users’ computers when they use the company’s various online services, like Search or Maps. Information collected by the cookie does not include personally identifiable information, like names, but it does generate a unique number, called Google PREFID, that’s linked to a specific Web browser.

The NSA is, according to the Washington Post, able to use this number to identify the computer of people it has already pinpointed as someone of interest. It is not clear how the NSA is able to link a PREFID to a specific person, though it may be able to obtain this information through a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) order. According to the leaked documents, the agency does not use Google cookies to monitor Web activity on a broad scale, nor is it hacking into every Web user’s computers.


Nearly all websites – including the Washington Post and Digital Trends – use cookies for a variety of purposes, including tracking online activity, serving personalized ads, and collecting traffic analytics data. In other words, Google, which runs the world’s largest advertising network, is not alone. But it is the only company identified in the leaked NSA slides (one of which can be seen above). It is not clear if Google is providing the NSA with cookie data, though it would be legally required to do if FISA orders are used. A Google spokesperson says the company is refusing to comment on this report either way.

Google is one of eight technology giants leading a charge against the current state of government surveillance. The Reform Government Surveillance campaign, which urges the U.S. to lead the way in revamping the oversight and transparency of the NSA and the world’s other major spy agencies, is also backed by Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, AOL, LinkedIn, and Yahoo.

As far as the NSA revelations go, this one may be the least damning due to its specific, limited application. However, it does justify the fears privacy advocates have long warned, that the Web technology used to track all of us can be used for far more than just serving advertisements. So if you haven’t already installed cookie-blocking tech, now is as good a time as any.

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