October 07, 2013, 12:09 PM — Every Netizen with more than two brain cells to rub together knows ad companies and their partners are using cookies to track our movements across the Web. Of course, we also know the NSA has the capability to track almost anyone, anywhere, at any time, for any reason.
The almost in that sentence, however, is key. There are still some tools that allow people to surf the Net in relative anonymity, the best known of which is Tor.
So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the spooks have been spending a good deal of time and energy trying to crack Tor -- or at least subvert it -- using a variety of fiendishly clever tools.
The latest tool in its arsenal is probably the simplest: Tracking cookies.
First, if you’re not familiar with Tor, here’s a quick Tortorial.
When you use the Tor software to browse the Web, it obfuscates your IP address by passing Internet traffic through three Web servers (or nodes) before sending it on to its ultimate destination. Each server removes the IP address of the computer that sent the traffic and substitutes its own. By the time the traffic emerges from the last server, or exit node, the original IP address has been erased. So, in theory, anyone who’s watching Internet traffic coming into a site will have no idea of its actual origin.
You can see why the NSA might not appreciate this feature. It wants to know where that traffic is coming from, especially if it's traffic to, say, Kill-All-Americans.com.
Remember: Pretty much all traffic traveling over US Internet backbones passes through machines controlled by the NSA. We’ve known this since at least 2006. So one of the first things the NSA’s super-secret servers do is try to identify which people are using Tor. When it identifies a user, it goes through a variety of techniques to try and ‘tag’ that machine so that when the traffic passes out of the Tor exit node, the spooks can still identify the machine it originally came from.