The U.S. National Security Agency has been using Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG) cookies to track targets for some time, according to the Washington Post. The Post has been analyzing data leaked by former NSA analyst Edward Snowden, and has concluded that the NSA has been utilizing the numeric identifiers in Google’s “PREF” cookies for hacking. Exactly how the NSA gets access to the cookies is not explicitly mentioned in the Snowden documents, but most hints seem to suggest it is by clandestine means rather than with the cooperation of Google.
What are cookies?
A cookie is a small chunk of data issued by a website stored in a browser. Cookies can be used for customizing browsing experiences, or they can be used advertisers to target ads at specific demographics.
Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG) ads use a variety of cookie called a PREF cookie. A PREF cookie is designed to transmit information related to a user’s location and language preferences.
Snowden internal presentation on NSA
According to the Post’s analysis of Snowden’s internal presentation documents, the NSA has been using the numeric identifiers within these cookies to locate the communications of their targets. Cookies are not used in the process of determining people of interest, but having access to cookie data enables the NSA to pinpoint exactly where their targets were (or are) at a specific time.
The Post also reports the NSA has also been accessing data from mobile apps. The type of data derived from mobile apps, which coincidentally Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG) has recently started selling to advertisers, provides more specific location data compared to that from cookies or phone networks.
No evidence of Google involvement
Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG) has not yet made an official comment on the subject, but the leaked documents do not reveal whether Google was cooperating with the NSA in sharing cookies or even aware it was occurring, according to the Post’s analysis.