Printed from

Leaked slides show NSA tracking individuals using Google ad cookies

updated 01:59 pm EST, Wed December 11, 2013

Surfing habits, location tracking claimed performed by security agencies

The National Security Agency (NSA) may have been using cookies from web advertisements in order to track individuals, according to a report. A PREF cookie, a unique identifier typically used in Google's advertising system, has apparently been used by the NSA alongside location data, in order to locate individuals of interest to the agency.

Though they only supply a unique numerical identifier rather than personal information about the user, internal presentation slides sent to the Washington Post by Edward Snowden show the NSA and the British equivalent, GCHQ, as using the PREFIDs to distinguish a tracked individual's web traffic from that of other users. It is suggested that these techniques are also employed for "offensive hacking operations."

Excerpt from the latest leaked NSA slides (Washington Post)
Excerpt from the latest leaked NSA slides (Washington Post)

The same documents also appear to show the NSA as using data gathered from smartphone apps, under another section apparently named "Happyfoot." The location data stemming from a smartphone app is considerably more useful for the security agencies, due to the higher positional accuracy when compared to far broader cellular mast-based tracking, potentially allowing for agencies to track the movements of suspects without the need for any intrusive techniques.

The revelations will give privacy advocates more ammunition against the data collection activities performed by Internet advertisers. Chris Hoonagle, a lecturer in residence at UC Berkeley Law, told the report "On a macro level, 'we need to track everyone everywhere for advertising' translates into 'the government being able to track everyone everywhere.' It's hard to avoid."

The cookie-based tracking is the latest in a long line of surveillance issues that have plagued security agencies such as the NSA and GCHQ since Snowden's initial leaks. In recent months, the European Commission has called for the US to change the way it collects data in order to "restore trust." Tech companies, hit hard from the spying scandal, have called for the US government to change its policies with regards to surveillance, asking for more oversight and accountability, transparency, and for data collection on specific individuals rather than collecting it in bulk.

By Electronista Staff


  1. bobolicious

    Dedicated MacNNer

    Joined: 08-15-02

    the 'next big thing' ?

  1. chas_m

    MacNN Staff

    Joined: 08-04-01

    Yet another reason to reduce one's use of Google to the maximum extent possible. If it wasn't for their image search I could just about quit Google ... damn you image search, Y U SO GOOD?

Login Here

Not a member of the MacNN forums? Register now for free.


Network Headlines


Most Popular


Recent Reviews

Razer Kraken Pro headset

Gaming headphones are a challenge to get right, for a long list of reasons that are unique to the consumer buying them. Some shoppers ...

Patriot Aero Wireless Mobile Drive

Regardless of how large a tablet you buy, you always want more space. There's always one more movie or another album you'd cram on, if ...

Patriot Fuel+ 6000 and 9000mAh batteries

Mobile device batteries are better than they used to be, but there's always a scenario where users could use more juice. Upgrade manuf ...



Most Commented


Popular News