Many critics have pointed out the potential threat of tracking cookies placed by websites such as Google. Typically, such cookies are used to enhance the effectiveness of advertisements as companies are able to track a user’s activity across a myriad of websites and display more relevant ads. The problem however, is that the same data can be used maliciously, which documents released by Snowden have revealed.
The Washington Post reported that the NSA uses Google cookies in order to track key targets. These claims are based on slides released by Edward Snowden, which show that the NSA uses Google PREF cookies which contains data that uniquely identifies a user’s browser which they can then exploit remotely. How the NSA manages to get the cookies is unknown, but investigation by The Post revealed that cookies are allowed to be acquired by the NSA through a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act order. In such case, the company will know that the data is being taken and must legally comply.
Other slides show that the NSA collects geo-location data from mobile phones as part of a program called HAPPYFOOT. Coupling geo-location data with cookies makes advertisements even more appealing to businesses. The profits derived from these ad-based models are coming at a cost however, as secret intelligence organizations have been insidiously mining the data all along.