NSA tags Tor users and privacy activists as ‘extremists’ – report

4 Jul 2014

Leaked code from the US National Security Agency (NSA) reportedly shows that users of online privacy services, such as Tor or other Linux-based systems for anonymity, have been labelled ‘extremists’ by the organisation.

Obtained by German researchers and journalists, the code known as XKeyscore is used to monitor web searches and traffic and was found to have words that would trigger a response by any of these tools and subject a person to investigation and monitoring, according to Wired.

The software the NSA uses is also designed to go deeper into a person’s computer from just the basic tracking of internet use but to also examines emails between the user and Tor to try to obtain any information it can on its encryption.

In use since the 1990s, Tor user numbers have increased tenfold in the space of a year, after former CIA contractor Edward Snowden began to reveal the work of the NSA. Tor has also been used in countries where internet censorship has been enforced.

Understandably, the legal authority of the NSA to track people using anonymous software in this capacity is being brought into question.

Speaking to Wired, Kurt Opsahl, deputy general counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has said there has been serious concerns raised over how this far-reaching software was passed by the US court as part of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and called on the US government’s hypocrisy.

“One hand of the government is promoting tools for human rights advocates and political dissidents to be able to communicate and is championing that activity.

“Another branch of the government is determining that that activity is suspicious and requires tracking. This may intimidate people from using these very important tools and have a chilling effect that could undermine the free expression of ideas throughout the world.”

Biggest threats to the internet

This latest NSA news has coincided with the release of a new report, which asked 1,400 experts and academics involved in internet security what they thought were the biggest threats to the future of the internet in 2025.

According to The Washington Post, the vast majority of this study did not point to cyber-criminals or terrorists, but rather big corporations and governments as the most likely instigators of any future online user.

It is of their opinion that corporate espionage and interference, as well as government’s disruption of services in countries where political opposition is growing, could lead to a situation where the internet is ‘balkanised’.

One of the participants in the study, PJ Rey, a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Maryland, gave this response on what he sees for the internet’s future: “It is very possible we will see the principle of net neutrality undermined.”

“In a political paradigm where money equals political speech, so much hinges on how much ISPs and content providers are willing and able to spend on defending their competing interests. Unfortunately, the interests of everyday users count for very little.”

NSA image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic