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If You Do This, the NSA Will Spy on You

A recent report reveals online behaviors that will get you tailed by the spies. By Patrick Tucker

Worried about the NSA monitoring you? If you take certain steps to mask your identity online, such as using the encryption service TOR, or even investigating an alternative to the buggy Windows operating system, you’re all but asking for “deep” monitoring by the NSA.

TOR is an encryption network developed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in the 1990s. The military’s hope was to enable government workers to search the web without exposing their locations and identities. The system today is widely available, runs on open source code and is popular among privacy advocates as a more secure alternative to open Internet surfing, particularly in countries with repressive regimes. It works by encrypting the user’s address and routing the traffic through servers that are located around the world (so-called “onion routing.”) How does the NSA access it? Through a computer system called XKeyscore, one of the various agency surveillance tools that NSA leaker Edward Snowden disclosed last summer.

According to a recent report from the German media outlet Tagesschau, a group of TOR affiliates working with Tagesschau looked into the source code for XKeyscore. They found that nine servers running TOR, including one at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, were under constant NSA surveillance. The code also revealed some of the behaviors that users could undertake to immediately be tagged or “fingerprinted” for so-called deep packet inspection, an investigation into the content of data packages you send across the Internet, such as emails, web searches and browsing history.

If you are located outside of the U.S., Canada, the U.K. or one of the so-called Five Eyes countries partnering with the NSA in its surveillance efforts, then visiting the TOR website triggers an automatic fingerprinting. In other words, simply investigating privacy-enhancing methods from outside of the United States is an act worthy of scrutiny and surveillance according to rules that make XKeyscore run. Another infraction: hating Windows.

If you visit the forum page for the popular Linux Journal, dedicated to the open-source operating system Linux, you could be fingerprinted regardless of where you live because the XKeystore source code designates the Linux Journal as an “extremist forum.” Searching for the Tails, operating system, another Windows alternative popular among human rights watchers, will also land you on the deep-packet inspectee list.

Science fiction author Cory Doctorow, an editor at the popular technology blog Boing Boing, was quick to take exception to the findings, questioning not only the propriety of the tactics revealed in the researchers’ report but also their utility.

Tor and Tails have been part of the mainstream discussion of online security, surveillance and privacy for years. It's nothing short of bizarre to place people under suspicion for searching for these terms."

More importantly, this shows that the NSA uses ‘targeted surveillance’ in a way that beggars common sense. It's a dead certainty that people who heard the NSA's reassurances about ‘targeting’ its surveillance on people who were doing something suspicious didn't understand that the NSA meant people who'd looked up technical details about systems that are routinely discussed on the front page of every newspaper in the world.

Doctorow goes on to speculate, with the help of an anonymous expert, that the NSA’s intention in marking the TOR-curious for monitoring was to “separate the sheep from the goats -- to split the entire population of the Internet into ‘people who have the technical know-how to be private’ and ‘people who don't’ and then capture all the communications from the first group.”

The better able you are at protecting your privacy online, the more suspicious you become.

How many sheep and how many goats are there? Not all of the XKeyscore fingerprinting triggers apply to U.S. citizens, as mentioned above, but some 14 percent of U.S. Internet users have taken some step to mask their identity online using encryption according to the PEW Internet and American Life survey from September of last year.

The revelations underscore the fact that in the post-Snowden environment, privacy is less of a given and more of a fast-paced cat and mouse game. An encryption network, developed by the military, gains popularity among a public increasingly worried about government surveillance. The network is then hacked by the government that created it. Of course, you don’t have to be the NSA to crack TO; you just need a bit of money. Two researchers, Alexander Volynkin and Michael McCord, will presenting at the popular Black Hat conference next month, a provocative session called “You Don’t Have To Be the NSA to Break TOR: Deanonymzing Users On a Budget.” They report that they can crack TOR and disclose a specific user’s identity for just $3000.