For years, privacy advocates have been wary of the "cookies" that advertisers and marketers use to track consumers around the Web. The industry's response has always been that the tracking is completely innocuous and is used only for such relatively piddling purposes as figuring out which ads to show to which consumers.
Ah, but now the Washington Post reports that the National Security Agency documents released by former NSA contactor Edward Snowden tell a somewhat different story.
According to a slide presentation and other documents leaked by Snowden, the NSA looks at the cookies and at the location data that computers and smartphones routinely spit out to decide which Web users are likely suspects for further snooping. They then hack into their machines and browse around.
The NSA spooks find Google's cookies particularly nutritious, the Post said. While Google's recipe doesn't include the consumer's name, it does contain the unique identification code of each user's browser, which is almost as good.
You didn't know your browser had an ID? It does. And so does your computer or smartphone. Each device has its own unique identifier; they're not normally accessible to users but they're easily obtainable by experienced hackers, which certainly includes the NSA.
According to the Post, the NSA isn't sifting through everyone's cookies. Instead, it's using the technique to zero in on individuals who have already exhibited what's deemed to be suspicious behavior.
Google, Microsoft and other big tech companies have protested the government's spying on their activities but in Washington, where bombast is cheap, such protestations are not taken very seriously. After all, it's the Internet techies who for decades have been telling us information "just wants to be free." Well, guess what, the feds agree and are freeing up a lot of data that has heretofore been used to determine whether you should see an ad for a Verizon smartphone or a BMW.
Or as Chris Hoofnagle, a lecturer in residence at UC Berkeley Law, put it in the Post article: "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."